2004 April 05 Monday
Privacy Concerns Block Response To Terrorist Threat

Heather MacDonald observes in a Wall Street Journal article entitled "The 'Privacy' Jihad" that there are privacy Luddites who disapprove of all use of computers for identifying and tracking terrorists. (note: the WSJ article is adapted from a longer article originally written for the City Journal)

The privacy advocates -- who range from liberal groups focused on electronic privacy, such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center, to traditional conservative libertarians, such as Americans for Tax Reform -- are fixated on a technique called "data mining." By now, however, they have killed enough different programs that their operating principle can only be formulated as this: No use of computer data or technology anywhere at any time for national defense, if there's the slightest possibility that a rogue use of that technology will offend someone's sense of privacy. They are pushing intelligence agencies back to a pre-9/11 mentality, when the mere potential for a privacy or civil liberties controversy trumped security concerns.

Heather reviews the computer systems projects that were being developed for use against terrorists (e.g. Total Information Awareness) that have been cancelled and also identifies a number of projects that are currently threatened. The privacy fanatics have gone so far as to cause a battlefield information system to be cancelled.

Arnold Kling argues that the basic moral outlook of liberals about how to raise children colors their view of terrorism in a way that hobbles their ability to effectively respond to the threat it poses.

Fundamentally, the "nurturance" model has no mechanism for coping with terrorism. It is easy and comfortable for liberals to express anger at President Bush, who represents the opposite "strictness" model. However, liberals are empty-handed when it comes to providing meaningful, constructive suggestions for policy. There simply is little or nothing within the "nurturance" paradigm that is useful for dealing with murderous fanatics.

Kling points out tha the conservative "strictness" style of punishing children to make them do good also has problems when translated into a response against the terrorist threat. Speaking as a hawk myself I can say that while the willingess of hawks to use military force to go after enemies is a needed impulse it is not by itself sufficient and, if used indiscriminately, can backfire. We need a number of approaches. Neither the gut instinctual responses of liberals or of conservatives are sufficient to handle the Muslim terrorist threat.

Kling is reluctant to embrace David Brin's proposal in Brin's book Transparent Society to allow all the public access to all electronic surveillance equipment. Brin believes the death of privacy is inevitable but that freedom can be protected by allowing that universal access to surveillance equipment. Kling worries that people are not ready to responsibly use their ability to watch each other with electronic surveillance technology.

My concern with Brin's approach is that I think that it requires a citizenry that is well educated and adapted to the environment that he envisions. Before we reach that point, an elite could have used surveillance technology to install a permanent tyranny. Perhaps eventually we will evolve to the transparent society that Brin proposes. For now, however, I believe we need a formal structure to preserve liberty -- a constitution of surveillance, if you will.

Kling argues for a constitutional amendment to create a domestic intelligence agency with a parallel agency to oversee and investigate its activities. Liberal critics of the Patriot Act and other Bush Administration responses to terrorism who cite Richard Clarke as an expert on what the Bush Administration should have done ought to take note that Richard Clarke also supports creation of a domestic intelligence agency.

My own take on the need for surveillance to counter the terrorist threat is that the response to terrorism differs from the response to regular crime in one very important way: with regular crime it is more acceptable to identify and catch criminals after they have committed crimes whereas with terrorism the emphasis is on catching the perpetrators before they carry out attacks. Since we can't read minds (at least not yet) there seems an obvious need for computer systems that detect patterns in behavior that will identify terrorists. We can't look through enough data to pick up signs of terrorist preparations unless we use automation. The automation even has advantages in that computers can be programmed to be more selective in what they pay attention to. Human surveillers are inevitably going to pay attention to aspects of behavior that we'd just as soon not have law enforcement personnel watching (like law enforcement personnel who, say, watch a sex act through a window during a stake-out).

The trend toward the surveillance society is already well underway in any case. See, for example, my FuturePundit post, Most Surveillance Cameras In NYC Privately Owned and Cell Phone Cameras And Personal Privacy. I agree with David Brin on the inevitability of the death of privacy. See my FuturePundit Surveillance Society category archive for more on the technological trends that make that outcome inevitable. The opposition to the use of computers and surveillance devices to fight terrorism really is a form of modern Luddism.

Greater domestic surveillance will eventually come about in response to future terrorist attacks. If Brin's idea of a Transparent Society can not protect freedom under conditions of greater invasions of privacy then we face a future in which we will have less freedom.

Update: In her longer City Journal article Heather MacDonald explains how the TIA project could have linked all the al-Qaeda operatives together before 9/11.

Why DARPA’s interest in commercial repositories? Because that is where the terror tracks are. Even if members of sleeper cells are not in government intelligence databases, they are almost certainly in commercial databases. Acxiom, for example, the country’s largest data aggregator, has 20 billion customer records covering 96 percent of U.S. households. After 9/11, it discovered 11 of the 19 hijackers in its databases, Fortune magazine reports. The remaining eight were undoubtedly in other commercial banks: data aggregator Seisint, for example, found five of the terrorists in its repository.

Had a system been in place in 2001 for rapidly accessing commercial and government data, the FBI’s intelligence investigators could have located every single one of the 9/11 team once it learned in August 2001 that al-Qaida operatives Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq al-Hazmi, two of the 9/11 suicide pilots, were in the country. By using a process known as link analysis (simpler than data mining), investigators would have come up with the following picture: al-Midhar’s and al-Hazmi’s San Diego addresses were listed in the phone book under their own names, and they had shared those addresses with Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehi (who flew United 175 into the South Tower of the World Trade Center). A fifth hijacker, Majed Moqed, shared a frequent-flier number with al-Midhar. Five other hijackers used the same phone number Atta had used to book his flight reservations to book theirs. The rest of the hijackers (who crashed in Pennsylvania) could have been tracked down from addresses and phones shared with hijacker Ahmed Alghamdi, a visa violator—had the INS bothered to locate him before the flight by running his name on its overstayer watch list.

Heather explains how an advanced set of computer systems might have averted some or all of the 9/11 attacks:

Going beyond link analysis from known suspects, TIA inventors hoped to spot suspicious patterns in data even before they could identify any particular suspect. For example, on 9/11, the airline-passenger profiling system flagged as suspicious nine of the 19 hijackers as they attempted to board, including all five terrorists holding seats on American Airlines 77, which flew into the Pentagon; three of the hijackers on American Flight 11; and one hijacker on United Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania. Security procedures at the time prohibited airport personnel from interviewing flagged passengers or hand-searching their carry-on luggage—a mad capitulation to the civil liberties and Arab lobbies.

Instead, a machine would have scanned the checked luggage of the nine flagged hijackers for explosives, and an airport agent would have confirmed that they actually boarded with their bags. But had a pattern-recognition system been in place—and assuming that five flagged passengers on one flight was an abnormal pattern—authorities might have investigated further and noticed that the five flagged passengers were all Middle Eastern men. Link analysis would then have shown extensive connections among them. Had security agents overcome their fear of a racial profiling charge, they might have interviewed the five and found troubling inconsistencies in their stories, meriting further inquiries.

While the Muslim terrorists hate many aspects of modernism it is ironic that the United States government is more constrained in its ability to use technology to fight terrorists than the terrorists are in their fight against the United States and the West.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2004 April 05 01:45 PM  Terrorists Western Response

Luke Lea said at April 6, 2004 6:50 AM:

Just a couple of comments: I am a "nurturance-style liberal" with my own children, yet I don't have any problems with i.d. cards, surveillance cameras, and all the rest of it.

As for the "loss of privacy" and whether we are mature enough or otherwise ready for it: the truth, I predict, is that the ready availability of all that information to everybody about everybody will turn out to be surprisingly, overwhelmingly, unendingly . . .boring. It will be about as threatening as walking down a crowded sidewalk in Manhattan.

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