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Needlestack

90% crud has an excellent post about government, security and privacy. He includes a quote by Bruce Schnier about central databases and data mining programmes from his article How we are fighting the war on terrorism/IDs and the illusion of security.

But any such system will create a third, and very dangerous, category: evildoers who don’t fit the profile. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, Washington-area sniper John Allen Muhammed and many of the Sept. 11 terrorists had no previous links to terrorism. The Unabomber taught mathematics at UC Berkeley. The Palestinians have demonstrated that they can recruit suicide bombers with no previous record of anti-Israeli activities. Even the Sept. 11 hijackers went out of their way to establish a normal-looking profile; frequent-flier numbers, a history of first-class travel and so on. Evildoers can also engage in identity theft, and steal the identity — and profile — of an honest person. Profiling can result in less security by giving certain people an easy way to skirt security.

There’s another, even more dangerous, failure mode for these systems: honest people who fit the evildoer profile. Because evildoers are so rare, almost everyone who fits the profile will turn out to be a false alarm. This not only wastes investigative resources that might be better spent elsewhere, but it causes grave harm to those innocents who fit the profile. Whether it’s something as simple as “driving while black” or “flying while Arab,” or something more complicated such as taking scuba lessons or protesting the Bush administration, profiling harms society because it causes us all to live in fear…not from the evildoers, but from the police.

The rest of the post is equally sound:

The problem with these data mining programs is that they don’t work. There simply isn’t enough data to build a good terrorist model. Let’s take two recent American terrorists: John Allen Muhammad and Timothy McVeigh. What did their records have in common before they acted? The only common data point between the two is that they both served in the military. If we had a system that could spot these two men, it would also falsely identify every single male who served in the US Military.

That of course assumes that the data is properly mined and analyzed. But let’s go back to the initial story, where we find out that the TSA sucks at analyzing data. Where does that leave us?

Some might say finding an evil-doer among regular people is akin to finding a needle in a haystack. I say that since there’s no way to tell the bad from the good it’s closer to finding a specific needle in a needlestack. Is that really worth giving up our privacy for an illusion of security?

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11 comments to Needlestack

  • harryj

    90% Crud accuratly shows how difficult it is to unmask the hidden terrorist, and in view of that asks if it is worth giving up our privacy.

    Our privacy is dear to us all, and we have to consider if anything is worth such loss. Despite the difficulties detailed by 90% Crud the security services do have successes, perhaps even more than we know, so they must have found ways of offsetting the risks to ordinary citizens and finding some of the terrorists. Mr Blunkett must be very concerned about the risks to us posed by Al Qu’ida who are not noted for sweet reasonableness or their aversion to unimaginable horror such as suicide bombers. He would have the imagination to be worried about dirty radiological bombs in London, botulinum toxin introduced into the water supply, or a hijacked plane flown into St Pauls or Canary Wharf. He would also be aware of the network of Al Qu’ida terrorists uncovered in several European cities, and of those not yet uncovered in other European cities.
    I am very fond of my privacy, but we live in terrible times and until your thinkers can suggest reliable alternatives to the heroic attempts of the security services to protect us, I am prepared to lose a little of my privacy. I do not think negotiation is a reliable alternative.

  • Guy Herbert

    “…the security services do have successes, perhaps even more than we know…” – What’s the evidence for this?

    The point continually made by civil libertarians is that mere arrests cannot be counted as “successes” without subsequent adequate proof of guilt, indeed that arrests without safe convictions are not successes but failures. That security services are more active and aggressive and claim that they are doing well in self-justification (what else would they say?) tells us nothing. The point of the piece was that certain so-called security measures are demonstrably counterproductive for the security of the general population, however popular they are with politicians and the security establishment.

    “He would also be aware of the network of Al Qu’ida terrorists uncovered in several European cities, and of those not yet uncovered in other European cities.” {my emphasis) Leaving aside the question of whether Al Qaeda is more than an endorsed branding for a wide variety of groups of varying competence and resources, I’d be very impressed if any Home Secretary was “aware” of things that are by definition unknowable. How? Via a spirit guide, perhaps?

    It is important to the public image of the security services (and perhaps even a genuine deterrant to conspiracy-minded terrorists) that they present themselves as omniscient and omnipresent, wise and powerful–and their opponents as vastly well-resourced and organised–but if you think about the practicalities it just isn’t sustainable.

    Security services are necessary, and certainly can do a good job. But for some reason public credulity explodes when it comes to the secret world. Otherwise rational people conclude that everything they are told is true, and take every ambiguous hint the way they are supposed to. Those who are skeptical to the point of mockery about, say, Health Service statistics will happily swallow whole anything originating from the dark alleys behind the Home Office and the MoD. Is fear really so strong that the people will like desperate junkies buy a unidentified substance from someone they’ve never met on the assurance of a friend of a friend that it will make them feel better?

  • harryj

    Guy Herbert mocks the efforts of the security and defence services, and says that arrests are not convictions. True, but why not wait for the trials which must come. I personally am pleased that terrorists are in confinement and not at liberty, and while I support law and order, I am not unaware that there are those who exploit the law systematically to support terrorism.

    90% crud rightly casts doubt on some computer techniques as tools for catching terrorists, but alarmingly seems to suggest that it is better not to try, as does G.H. Al Qu’aida probably supports, encourages, and finances some terrorist cells in Europe. A recent BBC documentry gave explicit details of cells in Hamburg and Milan, with evidence of a very widespread network throughout Europe, waiting to be uncovered. I would be amazed if the Home Secretary was unaware of considerable detail through the security services, though the remark about the “spirit guide” was so droll!

    There is clearly an effective system of support for terrorist organisations in the U.K. and Europe. Fundamentalist Islamists state catagorically that they wish to replace Western civilisation with an Islamic state and Sharia law. For Sharia read amputations, beheadings and stonings. Now that implies a change in our way of life that most of us would wish to prevent by almost any means possible. If security services wish to detain suspected terrorists, even before the lawyers can reach them, then I am loath to prevent them. After all the eagerly waiting lawyers, aided and abbetted by mountains of U.K. and European human rights laws, and seemingly unlimited finance, have scant respect for the ordinary British citizen. Remember that Hamza daily preaches outside the Finsbury Park mosque.

  • Guy Herbert

    Was my comment really so unclear?

  • harryj wrote:

    “I am very fond of my privacy, but we live in terrible times and until your thinkers can suggest reliable alternatives to the heroic attempts of the security services to protect us, I am prepared to lose a little of my privacy.”

    You have every right to give up *your* privacy voluntarily, but you have no right to expect me to give up mine.

    “Remember that Hamza daily preaches outside the Finsbury Park mosque.”

    Are you objecting to freedom of religion in the UK ?

    How would interning Hamza without trial or charge be in the interests of State Security ? He is personally no threat, and is, presumably, together with his contacts, under constant surveillance, if he is not not actually an agent provocateur.

    In what way did the policy of Internment help in Northern Ireland, except to strengthen the various terrorist groups, and help recruit more members ?

  • Mark Ellott

    WTWU – well put. Overtly tighter security while giving a patina of protection, does nothing in reality except strengthen the arm of state security which will inevitably be used for its own purposes. Ordinary people become targets while terrorism continues apace. A society that sacrifices its freedoms for “security” is handing terroism victory on a plate.

  • harryj

    WTWU. There is little one can say to anyone who wilfully ignores obvious danger. I believe that Blair will speak today on the ongoing terrorist dangers facing us. I do not for a second think that the Americans expected that two huge towers in New York with three thousand innocent unsuspecting people would be destroyed on September 8th 2001, but it happened on the 9th, in a spectacular and terrible way.

    I believe in freedom of religion in the UK and everywhere, for you to suggest otherwise I find offensive. A limitation arises if murder is suggested by a preacher, or if he should preach death to the members of another religion. I would not wish to deprive you of your privacy, neither would I carelessly put my fellows at danger by beating my breast and crying “Freedom at any cost” in public. Grandstanding is not something that I admire.

    It is surprising to read that you think internment in N Ireland was ineffective. It brought the terrorists to their knees, and most of the population thought it highly effective. Only when it was abandoned and a policy of appeasement persued did the terrorists regain the upper hand. Had internment been persisted with, the political problems would have long since ended. Now only a disunited Ireland is likely to result, with the Irish Republic inheriting the problems, likely to be severe with a large determined protestant majority in the North.

    Terrorism, like crime generally, must be controlled by law. Legislation has to be appropriate, and rapacious lawyers not given the conditions of an overliberal judicial system to put their fellow citizens at risk for the sake of large fees. It is astonishing to see how terrorists and illegal immigrants have well paid lawyers at their sides within seconds of detention, with pre-prepared claims on the British taxpayer being waved about, rather like Neville Chamberlain returning from Munich.

  • harryj wrote:
    ” but it happened on the 9th, ”

    You presumably mean on the 11th of September 2001.

    “I believe in freedom of religion in the UK and everywhere, for you to suggest otherwise I find offensive.”

    Your words implied that Hamza should not be free to preach, so if you are offended, then you will have to choose your words more carefully.

    “It is surprising to read that you think internment in N Ireland was ineffective. It brought the terrorists to their knees, and most of the population thought it highly effective.”

    Internment simply converted people who had not actually committed any major crimes into hardened dedicated terrorist murderers, created “martyrs” within their support communities, leading to even more recruits and money from sympathisers and gave them a propaganda victory. It was a disasterous policy, which is why it was abandoned.

    “Terrorism, like crime generally, must be controlled by law. Legislation has to be appropriate, ”

    The law has to be seen to be fair, and equally applied to all, no matter what their religion, race, politics or how much money or influence they have. There has to be the same standard of proof and evidence for all.

    Internement without trial or charge or on mere suspicion never meets such criteria and is ultimately counterproductive in fighting terrorism.

    “with pre-prepared claims on the British taxpayer being waved about, rather like Neville Chamberlain returning from Munich”

    That was a worthless piece of paper, the result of the shameful appeasement which helped to cause a world war.

  • Guy Herbert

    I find the manner of harryj’s intervention alarming. Those who post and comment here may sometimes be intemperate, but I believe the whole point of the site is to resist the shutting-down of debate by the repetition of authoritarian slogans. We’d like a real argument about the morality and effects of the security/surveillance state.

    Yet here is harryj, who has gone to the trouble of seeking out the site, apparently not finding anything to engage with, and resorting to a restatement of the approved, dangerously meaningless nostrums.

    I’m far from soft on terrorism, and think a properly targeted Security Service is a vital weapon against it. Yet I want to live in a free society. And I am skeptical that the personal risks to me of doing so, are less than the risks of living in a police state, even were I prepared to exchange freedom for security. The challenge to harryj, and others who fear innominate bad men more than the abuse of state power, is twofold.

    (1) They need to show that their prescription does what it is supposed to. A “security measure” must genuinely increase security in some defined sense. Profiling fails that test, but that seems not to deter harryj and he has not tried to explain why.

    (2) They have to demonstrate that the price (in terms of damage to free social institutions–economic cost is part of test (1)) is worth paying. You cannot claim to be defending our society from “terrorism” if you squeeze out their cause by a more pervasive wrecking method. That is like proclaiming success in treating drug addicts by getting them hooked on an alternative medication.

  • harryj

    WTWU. You are quite right, I find the American way of dating confusing.It was 9/11, as they would have it.

    It is clear that you do believe in free speech for Hamza, but perhaps less so for those who disagree with you. I have to admit that while I support free speech for all, there remains a proviso that such speech does not incite murder of jews and christians, or incite violent insurrection. I also admit that free speech which encourages others to take up arms against our armed forces, my fellow countrymen, should be activly discouraged. Oddly enough I do not feel alone in this, though I am aware that there are sizable elements in this country who see a moral equivalence between terrorism and Western civilization.

    GH. also seems to be rather against free speech for those who do not subscribe to the left-liberal socialist mind set, and is quick to anathematise all who take a slightly more robust view of national survival, and seeks to shut down discussion in the time honoured ways of the left. He writes of “shutting down debate by repeating authoritarian slogans” (unsupported by the written record), but does exactly that himself.

    We have agreed that computer data mining is as yet, an unsatisfactory security technique, as was stated by 90% crud. It remains to be seen if such techniques can be made more focussed. Profiling so far also has limitations, but one would presume that this method also will become more refined and more reliable. To suggest that these efforts are not worth while and should be abandoned is perhaps to neglect promising weapons in the fight against terror. The main thing is to continue the effort to detect terrorist activity, and to remember that no one method will stand alone, but that all methods combined may produce the evidence required. This is of course the standard approach to routine crime investigation. Vigour and determination are required.

    Why raise the bogeyman of a police state state, such alarmist writing is uncalled for and not remotely in prospect, even by this socialist government. I interpreted GH’s point (2), with some difficulty, as meaning that the benefits of security measures should exceed the costs , financial as well as social. Of course. But that does not reduce the need for security. I think the defence of our freedom is worth a lot of effort and cost. Remember even Neville Chamberlain set in motion the rearmament of our country while others preached appeasement.

    I am not confident that my postings are being read, and seem to have to repeat some points more than once. I think these postings are not serving any point and will not return with any more.

  • Guy Herbert

    Gosh! Nobody’s ever called me a socialist before. Though someone on the staff of The Salisbury Review once said to me that I was so right-wing I’d come out the other side.

    It’s always a bit depressing when there’s no meeting of minds sufficient even for discussion.