Some while ago, it was reported that the FBI isusing data mining to assist in fighting terrorism. The idea is very appealing in theory. Every terrorist incident, in retrospect, has some characteristics that “could have prevented the attack if only someone had connected the dots.” The problem with terrorism, though, is that the “dots” are like grains of sand in the sea. To find the dots in advance and connect them would require such an exhaustive effort that the expense would probablybe far greater than the expense of just letting the attack happen.
Data Mining provides a start of a solution, though. Simply feed massive amounts of raw data into the computer, and let the computer connect the dots. The computer won’t necessarily be able to prevent an attack, but it can highlight suspicious events or people, and can speed up investigations before and after attacks. Law enforcement has been using data mining in more limited contexts for many years, with great success; for example to flag suspicious credit card activity.
Unfortunately, the sort of traces that can lead to a terrorist are not as easy to measure and catalogue as are credit card receipts. And data mining algorithms work best on large representative samples of data. This is where I believe that Operation TIPS comes in. The government is already collecting raw information on phone calls, e-mail, hotel registers, and rental car receipts. Other obvious sources could include store purchase receipts, license plate logs from highway control camera systems, etc. As long as this information is used in aggregate, the government’s collection of it is likely to withstand any fourth ammendment challenge.
By itself, I think that raw data from “citizen informers” is unlikely to be very useful. There is guaranteed to be a large amount of incorrect or even deliberately misleading information submitted. As a standalone initiative, I would guess that the only real benefit of such a hotline would be to make citizens feel empowered and involved, while the tips would continue to be ignored as they always have. But combined with a larger data mining system, I think that “citizen informer” tips would be very useful. In cases where the system detected suspicious patterns in the objective, fact-based data described earlier, it would be smart to cross-check and see if there were any subjective observations submitted through Operation TIPS that could validate the suspicion.
Although data mining state of the art is advancing quickly, the task of being able to pick out a few bad apples from a population of billions is obviously not something you solve with”off the shelf” technologies. This is where the DARPA Information Awareness Office comes in. It’s a new office of Department of Defense, headed by John Poindexter, and chartered with developing the database, indexing, and mining techniques necessary to make sense of these massive amounts of dynamic data.
From my perspective as a citizen, I think that DARPA IAO, Operation TIPS, and things like the X-45 swarmsare alarming. Even if they aren’t outlawed by the constitution, they should be. These technologies are being developed ostensibly to protect the population from being terrorized by an asymmetric threat.
But these technologies in the wrong hands are a means of doing away with “the consent of the governed”. If a government wants torepressparticular segments of the population, they have historically needed to use a proportionally large number of police and army to do so. These police and army personnel are themselves citizens, and capable of withdrawing their consent, so the government needs to be careful not to alienate them. And the government must be extremely careful not to allow the repression to be felt in non-target populations, lest those populations join in the revolt and replace the government. On the other hand, the technologies needed to target terrorists with precision are technologies that give their consent freely to whoever uses them, and permit opponents of the government to be picked off with precision that can evade the most vigilant of patriots.
Essentially, rulers rule by consent of the governed only so long as the governed are capable of mounting a resistence that equals the power of the rulers. Simply by way of numbers, “the governed” in modern democracies have always posed a symmetrical threat capability to overthrow the government should it become too corrupt. Paradoxically, though, the tools used by a government to fight the asymmetric threat of terrorism are the same tools that allow a government to gain asymmetrical control over its own people. People in modern democracies have no experience in fighting an asymmetric threat posed by a government. The best strategy, then, would be to prevent such an asymmetric threat from forming in the first place.
(From my perspective as a technical person, though, a job in DARPA IAO is the coolest job in DoD a person could have.)