Friday, May 12, 2006

We are All al-Qaeda

There is a line in the recent film V for Vendetta, uttered by the Guy Fawkes-masked V: "People shouldn’t be afraid of their government, the government should be afraid of its people." (A bastardization of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, I am told.)

Well, it appears in the case of the Bush administration, they are.

Why else would they need to log every single domestic phone call—every single one—and then listen in to overseas connections, and any domestic calls that have piqued their interest thanks to this data-mining and pattern analysis?

It can’t be because the program helps catch terrorists (from the New York Times via georgia10):

WASHINGTON, Jan. 16 - In the anxious months after the Sept. 11 attacks, the National Security Agency began sending a steady stream of telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and names to the F.B.I. in search of terrorists. The stream soon became a flood, requiring hundreds of agents to check out thousands of tips a month. But virtually all of them, current and former officials say, led to dead ends or innocent Americans.

(and updated in today’s Washington Post)

After the New York Times disclosed the eavesdropping in December, the White House dubbed it a "terrorist surveillance program" and said it involved only international communications by people with "known links" to al-Qaeda and its allies. The Washington Post reported in February that about 5,000 Americans had been subject to eavesdropping under the program and that nearly all of them had been cleared of suspicion.

And that 5,000 was just from the previously-revealed part of the spying program—it does not (I think) include whatever has resulted from the hundreds (maybe thousands) of terabytes of communications data that have been collected under this broader domestic troll.

"Both the attorney general and the president have lied to the American people about the scope and nature of the NSA's program," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It's clearly not focused on international calls and clearly not just focused on terrorists. . . . It's like adding more hay on the haystack to find that one needle."

Valdis Krebs, apparently an expert on “social network analysis” picks up the needle/haystack metaphor:

If you're looking for a needle, making the haystack bigger is counterintuitive. It just doesn't make sense.

Certain people are more suspicious than others. So you start with them. And you work two steps out. If none of those people are connected, you don't have a cell. Because if one was there, you'd find some clustering. You don't have to collect all the data in the world to do that."

The right thing to do is to look for the best haystack, not the biggest haystack. We knew exactly which haystack to look at in the year 2000 [before the 9/11 attacks]. We just didn't do it...

The worst part -- the thing that's most disappointing to me -- is that this is not the right way to do this. It's a waste of time, a waste of resources. And it lets the real terrorists run free.

Yeah, but some of you are saying, I do nothing wrong, why not better safe than sorry? Oh, lots of reasons:

"To me, it's pretty clear that the people working on this program aren't as smart as they think they are," says former Air Force counter-terrorist specialist John Robb. "Some top level thinking indicates that this will quickly become a rat hole for federal funds (due to wasted effort) and a major source of infringement of personal freedom." John gives a bunch of reasons why. Here's just one:

It will generate oodles of false positives. Al Qaeda is now in a phase where most domestic attacks will be generated by people not currently connected to the movement (like we saw in the London bombings). This means that in many respects they will look like you and me until they act. The large volume of false positives generated will not be hugely inefficient, it will be a major infringement on US liberties. For example, a false positive will likely get you automatically added to a no-fly list, your boss may be visited (which will cause you to lose your job), etc.

OK, so let me get this straight: it’s unpopular, it doesn’t work, and it is hugely expensive. . . oh, and, it’s illegal, to boot! So why are they doing this? Does the Bush Administration see an al-Qaeda operative under every bed? Do they see each and every one of us as a potential terrorist?

Or is this just Bush & Co. using the tools available to those in power to do really thorough opposition research?

Let me quote another movie: “I. . . am. . . so. . . scared. . . right now.”

(t.o.t.h. to georgia10 for the Krebs and Robb link)


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