The Inefficacy of Big Brother: Associations and the Terror Factory

The WSJ has a fascinating story, responding to (but not linking) this post, trying to address the question of whether the NSA programs we’ve learned about are efficient.

But some statisticians and security experts have raised another objection: As a terror-fighting tool, it is highly inefficient and has some serious downsides.

Their reasoning: Any automated approach to spotting something rare necessarily produces false positives. That means for every correctly identified target, many more alarms that go off will prove to be incorrect. So if there are vastly more innocent people than would-be terrorists whose communications are monitored, even an extremely accurate test would ensnare many non-terrorists.

[snip]

Even if the NSA’s algorithm “is terribly clever and has a very high sensitivity and specificity, it cannot avoid having an immense false-positive rate,” said Peter F. Thall, a biostatistician at the University of Texas’ M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. In his arena, false positives mean patients may get tests or treatment they don’t need. For the NSA, false positives could mean innocent people are monitored, detained, find themselves on no-fly lists or are otherwise inconvenienced, and that the agency spends resources inefficiently.

Others, though, noted a key difference between terrorism and, say, a needle in a haystack: Terrorists tend to talk to each other in a way that needles don’t. So by analyzing a network of communications, the NSA could be ferreting out clues from more than just the messages’ particulars.

This question is, obviously, one of the reasons I posted on the 3 apparent false positives presented as implicitly terrorist associates of Najibullah Zazi in 2009. Because — assuming I’m right that they were false positives — it provides a glimpse into precisely how the government understood a lot of these terms in 2009 (I assume, though could be wrong, that their approach continues to be fine-tuned). As a reminder, here’s what we know about these 3 people:

Evidence that “individuals associated with Zazi purchased unusual quantities of hydrogen and acetone products in July, August, and September 2009 from three different beauty supply stores in and around Aurora;” these purchases include:

Person one: a one-gallon container of a product containing 20% hydrogen peroxide and an 8-oz bottle of acetone

Person two: an acetone product

Person three: 32-oz bottles of Ion Sensitive Scalp Developer three different times

For a variety of reasons, I believe the 3 false positives consist of one person (probably person two) with a genuine relationship with Zazi who purchase relatively little acetone, and 2 people with false relationships with Zazi who bought an unusual amount of beauty supplies.

That says the FBI made two mistakes, IMO. Assuming any purchase of a common product, acetone, was criminal on behalf of someone with a real tie to Zazi.

And assuming the relationships between the other two — the ones buying more beauty supplies — were meaningful. This could be, and I suspect it is, an assumption that anyone who belongs to the same mosque (and unlike the radical one he attended in NY, Zazi was reportedly not close to people at his mosque in CO).

Also note. This program (unlike ones I believe to exist at the National Counterterrorism Center) may not be algorithms per se at all. Rather, it could just be associations: If tie to Zazi and if beauty supply purchaser = “positive.” In other words, for better and worse the FBI may not be asking the computers to “think” for it at all.

Nevertheless, the assumptions — that membership in the same mosque  (or, for that matter, a single communication with a suspected terrorist) necessarily equates to a meaningful relationship — probably doom the approach in any case.

Which brings me to my other point. The WSJ suggests the costs of false positives include wasted investigative resources and unfair persecution for false positives.

But it doesn’t consider the other possible uses of what may or may not be considered false positives.

First, there’s the possibility an FBI investigation into a true false positive — someone totally innocent of terrorism — may discover some other criminal exposure, which the FBI could and has been known to use to turn the false positive into an informant.

Then there’s the likelihood, especially if a potentially false positive is a young Muslim male, that the FBI will keep that person under heavy surveillance and recruitment for years and ultimately turn him into a terrorism statistic. The FBI started surveilling Mohamed Osman Mohamud 3 years, starting before he turned 18, before they got him to attempt to bomb a public event. His parents even alerted the authorities to his increasing radicalism, but instead of intervening to reverse it, the FBI exacerbated it with several informants.

Would Mohamud have ever turned to terrorism without all that help from the FBI? Would he have developed the competence and acquired the resources to do harm? We can’t actually know, and I’m actually not aware that anyone has asked this question.

What we also can’t know is whether, had the FBI dedicated its efforts to something else, it could have prevented a crime developing without FBI’s help.

That is, there are a whole slew of questions that have to be asked as we assess this program. Which is why we need real transparency.

Tweet about this on Twitter27Share on Reddit0Share on Facebook4Google+3Email to someone

23 Responses to The Inefficacy of Big Brother: Associations and the Terror Factory

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • 11
  • 12
  • 13
  • 14
  • 15
  • 16
  • 17
  • 18
  • 19
  • 20
  • 21
  • 22
  • 23

Emptywheel Twitterverse
emptywheel RT @SamWangPhD: Sudden nerdy thought: should I calculate the house effects of all the polling sites and pundits?
1mreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel @astepanovich Once went into an interview having just heard a smutty joke, got asked, "what's the last joke you heard."
8mreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel @WeMeantWell Hmm. I see your point. Not Clara, not IZYQ. But something else.
8mreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel To think Olive Garden could lose its land just because it doesn't salt its water. http://t.co/YqRCeM2LyA
11mreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel RT @Krhawkins5: Daash. Pejorative, authentic, & what Syrian tweeps have used for while (I think it's acronym of transliterated Arabic name)?
13mreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel @WeMeantWell Nut uh. Must be a Google killer. Where else are you gonna find the string IZYQ except in a really frustrating scrabble hand?
14mreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel @mcdoobie What if they become the by-comparison-not-so-bad-guys in a few months? Happened with Assad.
16mreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel Since no one has settled on its name yet, can we rename ISIS/ISIL/IS something that's easier to Google? Maybe IZYQ?
18mreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel @ErikLoomis But hey. If it wins us back SCOTUS and keeps McCain out of SASC chair, cliche away.
28mreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel @ErikLoomis Cue "what's the matter with Kansas" headlines.
30mreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel @Krhawkins5 On many problems think the Courts are poised to fix. This one should be Congress' turn. @matthewstoller @JohnWonderlich
42mreplyretweetfavorite
June 2013
S M T W T F S
« May   Jul »
 1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
30