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Datamining anthropologists

16 February, 2009

Hi, my name is Alfons van Marrewijk (1960) and during the coming month I want to share some of my thoughts on business anthropology. Last weekend my wife Kris, our children Veerle (7) and Sido (5) and I travelled from Amsterdam to Sydney. I was a little bit nervous as a uniformed officer in Hong Kong awaited us with a printed ‘Mr. van Marrewijk’ sign when leaving the gate. Last time I was awaited by an officer I was wrongly accused of being a terrorist. Two years ago when I flew back to Amsterdam from Iran, with a friend of mine, airport authorities waited at the aircraft and held a computer printed list with five passport numbers. Our passport numbers were on the list and we were separately taken into an interrogation by the airport authorities. After twenty minutes they had found out that we were humble fathers of families in need of a cultural adventure. I found out that datamining systems had traced us as ‘possible suspected’ as:

· we had not checked in luggage,

· we both had vegetarian food,

· travelled without family,

· tickets were not paid by ourselves but by my company,

· we had not booked through any travel agency,

· no clear destination and stayed only 9 days in Iran.

Datamining systems combines all different data sources to find people of a certain profile. This is done in marketing to target down new customer groups but increasingly datamining is used in security services. After the interview I asked whether the information on my profile as ‘possible suspected’ could be erased. In my work I do travel to ‘suspected’ countries and I didn’t want to be surprised when entering the USA for a conference or so. However, it took me all day telephoning to find out that profiles from datamining software can’t be erased but will be valid for up to forty years! ‘And if you keep on insisting on destroying your information,’ a officer warned, ‘that will be recorded too’. For business anthropologists working in strange countries with strange vegetarian tastes, travelling has become more difficult nowadays.


I was afraid walking towards the officer in Hong Kong holding the ‘Mr. van Marrewijk’ sign. Fortunately, this time it was no possible terrorist profile but an e-visa to Australian that hadn’t work properly. This had to be restored by a strange ritual of an airport employee. The computer was consulted but refused to recognise our passport numbers. After trying this twenty times, the airport employee copied by hand all info of my e-visa computer print-out and took this to his superior. The supervisor, half hidden is an office behind, didn’t show up but send the employee back to try another computer screen. In the meantime our children were playing hide an seek in the growing line of waiting people behind us. It took the airport employee three quarters of an hour to finally confirm the Australian e-visas. But, here we are in Sydney!  

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 16 February, 2009 7:00 pm

    Welcome to Sydney! I am sorry your trip was even more adventurous than usual; even at the best of times, queueing up for immigration at Sydney airport after a 26-hour flight is not the best first impression (though it is somewhat ameliorated by the beagles).

    I suggest that you enjoy the vegetarian options in Sydney, but perhaps you might consider starting on meat afterwards. This seems the easiest way of getting off the suspect list!

  2. 17 February, 2009 10:01 am

    I was also shocked that vegetarianism seemed to put you higher up on the threat list. Is there really a correlation between vegetarians and terrorist acts? Should they be stationing security forces next to the tofu in the local supermarket?

    But seriously, your post does raise the issue of occupational hazards that anthropologists face by virtue of the unusual travel and other patterns they may follow.

    The consequences of data mining are also very worrying. If what you are saying is true, people become objects of suspicion when they move to far from the norm in a range of activities. Suspicion is no longer connected with any specific thing a person does to connect them with a particular crime but rather is based on the fact they are a statistical anomaly. A good example of the potentially coercive power of statistics.

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