The US government response to the bogus war on terrorism is a mixture of the stupid, the super stupid and the evil. Taking off our shoes at the airport isn’t evil but it is probably super stupid. So is the 3 oz. liquid ban. On reflection, maybe there are only two categories: super stupid and evil. In the evil category are the pseudoscientific “datamining” and “behavior detection” scams. Data mining is my favorite, since I use one of its techniques in my research work (Association Rule Mining) and I’m familiar with a number of other techniques. Familiar enough to not be surprised that when the National Research Council (a component of the National Academies of Science) looked at it of dubious scientific value:
The most extensive government report to date on whether terrorists can be identified through data mining has yielded an important conclusion: It doesn’t really work.
A National Research Council report, years in the making and scheduled to be released Tuesday, concludes that automated identification of terrorists through data mining or any other mechanism “is neither feasible as an objective nor desirable as a goal of technology development efforts.”
Inevitable false positives will result in “ordinary, law-abiding citizens and businesses” being incorrectly flagged as suspects.
They admit that far more Americans live their lives online, using everything from VoIP phones to Facebook to RFID tags in automobiles, than a decade ago, and the databases created by those activities are tempting targets for federal agencies. And they draw a distinction between subject-based data mining (starting with one individual and looking for connections) compared with pattern-based data mining (looking for anomalous activities that could show illegal activities).
But the authors conclude the type of data mining that government bureaucrats would like to do–perhaps inspired by watching too many episodes of the Fox series 24–can’t work. “If it were possible to automatically find the digital tracks of terrorists and automatically monitor only the communications of terrorists, public policy choices in this domain would be much simpler. But it is not possible to do so.” (CNET)
The NRC Committee, which included Charles Vest, former President of MIT and William Perry, a professor at Stanford University, former Secretary of Defense, were not any kinder to “behavior detection”:
Behavior detection, used by the Transportation Security Administration and some police departments to isolate possible criminals from crowds, likewise falls short of meeting scientific standards, the group said.
“There is not a consensus within the relevant scientific community” that behavior detection is “ready for use … given the present state of the science,” the group said.
The group cautioned that “inappropriate … responses to the terrorist threat … can do more damage to the fabric of society than terrorists would be likely to do.”
The council said terrorism is a threat to American society, but “inappropriate or disproportionate responses to the terrorist threat also pose serious dangers to society.”
“History demonstrates that measures taken in the name of improving national security, especially in response to new threats or crises, have often proven to be both ineffective and offensive to the nation’s values and traditions of liberty and justice,” the report says.(CNN)
Data mining to detect terrorists is the phrenology of computer science. It sounds and looks scientific. But it isn’t. The same with behavior detection. Plausible sounding but with no scientific basis for detecting deception by terrorists. If you’ve ever used these tools, you’d know how limited they are.
Unless you were in the Bush administration. Then you wouldn’t care.