Does Electronic Surveillance Stop Terrorism? Not If We’re Stupid About It

One of the most frustrating things about our ‘War on Terror’ is the widespread belief that all of our intrusive surveillance actually does something. In reality, it often misses actual terrorists, in part because it is focused on non-violent left-wing dissent–none of which will kill you. In addition, the massive dragnet of information overwhelms our ability to analyze it or act on it.

So it’s nice to read Very Serious Magazines asking the same question (boldface mine):

Almost every major terrorist attack on Western soil in the past fifteen years has been committed by people who were already known to law enforcement. One of the gunmen in the attack on Charlie Hebdo, in Paris, had been sent to prison for recruiting jihadist fighters. The other had reportedly studied in Yemen with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber, who was arrested and interrogated by the F.B.I. in 2009. The leader of the 7/7 London suicide bombings, in 2005, had been observed by British intelligence meeting with a suspected terrorist, though MI5 later said that the bombers were “not on our radar.” The men who planned the Mumbai attacks, in 2008, were under electronic surveillance by the United States, the United Kingdom, and India, and one had been an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration. One of the brothers accused of bombing the Boston Marathon was the subject of an F.B.I. threat assessment and a warning from Russian intelligence.

In each of these cases, the authorities were not wanting for data. What they failed to do was appreciate the significance of the data they already had. Nevertheless, since 9/11, the National Security Agency has sought to acquire every possible scrap of digital information—what General Keith Alexander, the agency’s former head, has called “the whole haystack.”….

By flooding the system with false positives, big-data approaches to counterterrorism might actually make it harder to identify real terrorists before they act. Two years before the Boston Marathon bombing, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two brothers alleged to have committed the attack, was assessed by the city’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. They determined that he was not a threat. This was one of about a thousand assessments that the Boston J.T.T.F. conducted that year, a number that had nearly doubled in the previous two years, according to the Boston F.B.I. As of 2013, the Justice Department has trained nearly three hundred thousand law-enforcement officers in how to file “suspicious-activity reports.” In 2010, a central database held about three thousand of these reports; by 2012 it had grown to almost twenty-eight thousand. “The bigger haystack makes it harder to find the needle,” Sensenbrenner told me. Thomas Drake, a former N.S.A. executive and whistle-blower who has become one of the agency’s most vocal critics, told me, “If you target everything, there’s no target.” Drake favors what he calls “a traditional law-enforcement” approach to terrorism, gathering more intelligence on a smaller set of targets. Decisions about which targets matter, he said, should be driven by human expertise, not by a database.

The New Yorker article leaves out the Resource Integration Center failure–these were specifically designed to integrate local and federal intelligence. The older Tsarnaev brother was a person of interest in a triple homicide in Cambridge, MA; the city’s detectives have stated they would have investigated him further had they known of his terrorist connections.

That said, the Boston Resource Integration Center spent a lot of time assessing Code Pink (pacifist grandmothers) and Occupy Boston (semi-organized vagrants). Time well spent.

If we focused on the two major threats (how many people did Code Pink kill?), Islamic terrorism and domestic rightwing terrorism, we would be safer.

Our record of focusing on everything makes you wonder just how many resources are being dedicated to surveillance of Ferguson protestors. But I’m sure our internal security agencies have learned their lessons….

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2 Responses to Does Electronic Surveillance Stop Terrorism? Not If We’re Stupid About It

  1. anthrosciguy says:

    Of course targeting everything has one great advantage: since there is no target when you target everything you can indulge in the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy and just draw targets around any holes you manage to make in the side of the barn. This is why the “get everything” method’s central problem is a feature rather than a bug.

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