TOC Having a list, being clueless Your Turn

January 5, 2010

Despite the religions of the Book, idol worship is still alive and well. In particular, the more peaceful the world, the more devotees the priests of Hatred turn into terrorists. I am afraid some solutions known to work are best avoided but this is no reason for ignoring lessons offered by the attempted plane crash on Christmas.

The first lesson hides in plain sight. It should not be allowed to escape undetected. As far as I can tell from reports, Umar Abdulmutallab did nothing to disguise his name as he traveled from Nigeria to the Netherlands to the United States. While identification is always a challenge when dealing with criminals and spies, not so with one time suicidal bombers.

If Umar Abdulmutallab had never raised any suspicion before his one-way trip to hell, our first lesson would have been the last. However, as the US Homeland Security Secretary unfelicitously said according to Eric Lipton and Scott Shane(*), "the system has worked really very, very smoothly over the course of the past several days". Did she mean the would-be terrorist had been put on "the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment"?

Thanks indeed to warnings to the American Embassy from his own "father, one of the most respected bankers in Nigeria", as further reported by Scott Shane (**), the son had already been black-listed, a true positive Janet Napolitano can be proud of. The problem of course is that US black-lists are like Russian dolls. Umar Abdulmutallab was among the 550,000, but not in the middle 14,000, let alone the core 4,000 "no-fly" list (***). Hindsight makes it obvious Umar Abdulmutallab should have been denied flying privileges.

But picking up isolated bombers before the fact is a pattern recognition problem and the second lesson to remember is the utter failure from both the authorities and the media to clearly explain what this entails to the general public. True, the attentive reader is given some clues. Eric Lipton and Scott Shane do speak about finding "the proper balance between security and privacy" and record official frustration at being "second-guessed one day and criticized on another". And Scott Shane stresses the sheer volume of data daily delivered by eavesdropping.

What is lacking? Three points. The acknowledgement that errors must occur, i.e. systems must fail, the understanding that errors are of two kinds with a design trade-off between them, the realization that such a trade-off cannot be handled efficiently without accounting for all sources of costs.

Such points may well border on the abstract. But if E=mc2 can be seared on every westernized mind, can't we give a similar exposure to "the fewer false positives, the more false negatives" and to "false negatives are never free" (1)?

If such points were known and accepted, the meaning of taking Umar Abdulmutallab's denunciation by his father "seriously", meaning act first, check later, would dawn on the public. Parents would start telling their children "eat your broccolis or we report you to the US Embassy". The no-fly black list would soon include close to one billion names whose processing would kill any attempt to contain the US deficit.

The public would also become more sensitive to costs unaccounted for. In a follow up by Eric Lipton (****), we learn "citizens of 14 nations, including [...] Nigeria, will now be subjected [...] to [...] intense screening at airports worldwide". Even if the United States were to pick up the tag for the extra screening process, the hidden cost of such blatant discrimination is huge. Wasn't the shoe bomber (2) a British citizen? Is the probability of a random Nigerian citizen being a terrorist so much higher than that of a British citizen? Why then aren't British citizens targeted?

Not knowing all the facts, I do not attack any specific measure, be it committed or omitted. My intent is rather to illustrate that to stop one terrorist, one less false positive, one is quickly led to label large numbers of people (3) as potential negatives, inevitably increasing false negatives and opening oneself to charges of unwarranted bias. Such charges can only be dismissed if false negatives are given a pre-defined, public and fair compensation.

Knowing a detection system cannot be perfect should not prevent it from being perfected. Mark Mazzetti and Eric Lipton examined the role of "the National Counterterrorism Center" and how it failed to piece together the father's warning with other available evidence (*****). No one familiar with the practice of information technology will be surprised by the conclusions of "a White House review into the episode". Whitewashing is unlikely when finding the different agencies concerned unwittingly made it difficult to share data by keeping relevant "information in silos". That's the way it is.

Being so publicly close, President Obama should ask Eric Schmidt how to merge silos. Could Google fail to link its proposed "acquisition of AdMob, the mobile advertising group", reported by Richard Waters (******), with its impressive stable of personal data aggregation tools, starting with DoubleClick? In the right hands, those million little pieces paint such an accurate profile of you and me, it does not even need to record names.

President Obama of course knows all about silos up close. Forget the National Counterterrorism Center, he cannot get his social secretary to share information efficiently with his Secret Service. How could he police all failed states worldwide? Like climate warming, terrorism is a global issue whose solution and associated costs are beyond any single country, no matter how powerful.

That is not to say President Obama is powerless. US security designer in chief, he could will to right our Western society overemphasis on bodies.

Read John Schwartz to find how the Christmas crasher has given a fillip to "screening technologies with names like millimeter-wave and backscatter X-ray" (*******). Privacy advocates are not amused. Bored bureaucrats resort to passport peeking. Would TSA agents be above snatching notable naked bodies on their cellphones? Hide heads and add the thrill of searching the Internet for matches. What a great recruiting hook!

Bruce Schneier, a security expert quoted by John Schwartz, asks the better question. Wouldn't "the millions of dollars being spent on new equipment [...] better invested in investigation and intelligence work"? For President Obama, the first trade-off is to budget between body and data tracking and, much as I am sensitive to virtual strip-tease, I think eprivacy issues about personal data gathering are just as important.

The third lesson therefore is a clue for President Obama. Since aggregating data tracks left by terrorists saves lives, violence against personal data must become the monopoly of the state, the same way as the practice of bodily violence was taken away from feudal lords.

If outsourcing US black-lists to Google looks attractive, it means such companies must be nationalized before their assets are turned against society.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ............. Questions Arise On Why Suspect Wasn't Stopped, by Eric Lipton and Scott Shane (New York Times) - December 28, 2009
  • (**) ........... 9/11 Shadow Is Cast Again, by Scott Shane (New York Times) - December 31, 2009
  • (***) ......... The System Failed, editorial (New York Times) - December 30, 2009
  • (****) ....... Strict Airport Screening to Remain for Citizens of 14 Nations, by Eric Lipton (New York Times) - January 4, 2010
  • (*****) ..... U.S. Spy Agencies Failed to Collate Clues on Terror, by Mark Mazzetti and Eric Lipton (New York Times) - December 31, 2009
  • (******) ... Google pressed on AdMob move, by Richard Waters (Financial Times) - December 30, 2009
  • (*******) . Debate Over Full-Body Scans vs. Invasion of Privacy Flares Anew After Incident, by John Schwartz (New York Times) - December 30, 2009
  • (1) asking "whether a person should be allowed to board", a false positive is to admit a terrorist, a false negative to ground an honest citizen.
  • (2) see the shoe bomber in the Wikepedia
  • (3) Nigeria has more than 150 millions inhabitants according to the Wikipedia. Worldwide, serious parent-child estrangements are not uncommon either.
January 2010
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