The Pervasiveness Of Government Databases

Let’s discuss government databases. The United States government maintains numerous databases on its citizens. Many of these databases are populated, if not entirely, in part by algorithms. And unlike Amazon’s recommendation algorithms or Google’s search algorithms, government algorithms have real world consequences. Because government databases have become so pervasive these consequences can range from being barred from flying on a plane to signing up for the latest video game:

Last weekend Muhammad Zakir Khan, an avid gamer and assistant professor at Broward College in Florida, booted up his PC and attempted to sign up for Epic Games’ MOBA-inspired Paragon beta. Unbeknownst to Khan, however, was that his name name—-along with many others-—is on the US government’s “Specially Designated Nationals list,” and as such was blocked from signing up.

“Your account creation has been blocked as a result of a match against the Specially Designated Nationals list maintained by the United States of America’s Office of Foreign Assets control,” read the form. “If you have questions, please contact customer service at”

There’s an interesting series of connections here. The first connection is Mr. Khan’s name appearing in the Specially Designated Nationals list. The second connection is the database, which is used to enforce the United States government’s various sanctions, applying to the Unreal 4 engine. The third connection is the game utilizing the Unreal 4 engine. In all likelihood Mr. Khan’s name was added to the database by an algorithm that adds anybody who has an arbitrarily selected number of characteristics that include such things as last names and religions.

So, ultimately, Mr. Khan was being prevented from signing up for a game because the government believes if they prevent modern video game technology from entering Iran, North Korea, or other countries under sanctions that the citizenry will start a revolution. Being human (or at least somewhat close approximations thereof) the agents charged with enforcing these sanctions chose to automate the process as much as possible, which resulted in a database likely automatically populated algorithmically.