Drowning in Data, Starved for Wisdom: The surveillance state cannot meaningfully assess terrorism risks

In this movie, we're Brad.
Pity the analysts.

The NSA has just vigorously denied that their new Utah Data Center, intended for storing and processing intelligence data, will be used to spy on US citizens. The center will have a capacity of at least one yottabyte, and will provide employment for 100-200 people. With the most generous assumptions [200 employees, all employed only on reviewing the data, only one yottabyte of data, ten years to collect the yottabyte, 5GB per movie], each employee would be responsible on average for reviewing 4500 billion terabytes, or approximately 23 million years’ worth of Blu-ray quality movies, every year.

 

Must...keep...watching...my...country...needs...me
Must…keep…watching…my…country…needs…me

This astounding and continually increasing mismatch shows that we are well beyond the point where law enforcement is able to have a human review a manageable amount of the data in its possession potentially relating to terrorist threats. Computer processing power doubles every two years, but law enforcement employment is rising at a rate of about 7% every ten years, and nobody’s going to pay for it to double every two years instead. Purely machine-based review inevitably carries with it a far higher probability that important things will be missed, even if we were to suppose that the data was entirely accurate to begin with – which it certainly is not.

So why is anybody surprised that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects and one of around 750,000 people in the TIDE database, was not stopped at the border? That facial recognition software wasn’t able to flag him as a match for a suspect? That the fusion centers, intended to synthesize data into actionable “suspicious activity reports”, flag things too late for them to be of any use? That the Air Force is panicking a little at not having enough people to process the data provided by our drone fleet?

It’s in this context, then, that we should understand the calls for more surveillance after the Boston Marathon attacks for what they are. More cameras, more surveillance drones and more wiretapping, without many more humans to process the data, will make this problem worse, not better. These calls are being driven not by a realistic assessment that surveillance will help prevent the next attack, but by the internal incentives of the players in this market. Neither the drone manufacturers, nor law enforcement, nor elected officials, have an interest in being the ones to call a halt. So instead they’re promoting automation – automated drones, automated surveillance, and email scanning software techniques.

They are missing something very simple. We don’t need a terrorism database with 750,000 names on it. There are not 750,000 people out there who pose any sort of realistic threat to America. If the “terrorism watch list” were limited by law to a thousand records, then law enforcement would have to focus only on the thousand most serious threats. Given the real and likely manpower of the federal government, and the rarity of actual terrorism, that’s more than enough. If law enforcement used the power of the Fourth Amendment, instead of trying to find ways round it, it could focus more on the highest-probability threats.

Yes, they would miss stuff. That’s inevitable under both a tight and a loose system. But a tight system has the added advantages that it protects more people’s liberties, and costs a lot less.

UPDATE: With the help of a New Yorker fact-checker, the figure of “400 billion terabytes” above has been corrected to “500 billion terabytes”.

Panel Discussion on Privacy and Security, BU, April 24

If you are in the BU area on Wednesday evening, come by to hear interesting speakers talking about privacy and security in the wake of the Boston Marathon attacks. Panelists will include Alex Marthews (that’s me!), James O’Keefe of the Massachusetts Pirate Party, and Gregg Housh. RSVP here.

bu_event_flyer

The Fourth Amendment and the Boston Marathon Attacks: Racialized “Reasonable Suspicion” and the Search of the Saudi Marathoner’s Apartment

The Boston Marathon attacks have brought to the surface some of the best and the worst in Massachusetts.

On the one side, many news sources reported responsibly and refused to speculate too quickly and without foundation about who the bombers were or why they might have done what they did. There seems at this stage good evidence on which to base the arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Above all, he was taken into custody quickly and alive, and Bostonians will be able to learn more about the motivations behind the attacks.

On the other side, panic, prejudice and the needs of the news cycle fueled an almost certainly unconstitutional search of an innocent Saudi marathoner’s house, an attack on a Muslim doctor in Malden, a call for genocide of Muslims, and a martial law-style lockdown of a vast area of metropolitan Boston.

This is the blog for the Campaign for Digital Fourth Amendment Rights, so unsurprisingly I’m going to focus on some of the Fourth Amendment issues arising out of the attacks; principally, the stop of the Saudi marathoner and the search of his apartment in Revere, and the constitutional issues raised when a householder refuses entry to law enforcement during house-to-house searches for a fugitive.

Follow me below the fold for the first of these!

Continue reading The Fourth Amendment and the Boston Marathon Attacks: Racialized “Reasonable Suspicion” and the Search of the Saudi Marathoner’s Apartment

The Boston Marathon: Generalized Surveillance Fails To Thwart Attack

Headline updated [x2].

Today, by the finish line of the Boston Marathon, on the same city block as the church I go to, two bombs went off. I feel shocked and sad beyond belief.

 

Photo credit: KVLY
Photo credit: KVLY.

My thoughts and prayers are with those who died or were hurt, with their families, and with all the people stranded in Boston on this cold night.

The former district attorney of Middlesex County, Gerry Leone, has taken to the airwaves to talk about how great the efforts have been before this attack to get a Joint Terrorism Task Force going, how well it has been working together, how smooth the state and federal collaboration has been, and how the appropriate response will be to increase random surveillance. Governor Patrick has also echoed his perspective, talking about the need for increased vigilance and random bag searches on the MBTA, which we have covered, and opposed, before.

It won’t surprise regular readers to know that my perspective on this is a little different and more skeptical. Even while massively and systematically abusing the Fourth Amendment, law enforcement wasn’t able to prevent this attack. The amount of data collected through warrantless electronic means by the centers Leone is talking about has been vast, and none of it, none of it, has thwarted a terrorist attack. Now, once again, they have failed us all.

Continue reading The Boston Marathon: Generalized Surveillance Fails To Thwart Attack

Microscope Monday: Analysis of Massachusetts’ proposed Free Speech Act, S. 642 / H. 1357

steampunk_microscope

Have you ever wondered why your Mondays have become an unending bliss of delight, falling upon you like Zeus visiting Danae in a shower of gold? It must surely be because of Microscope Monday, your weekly look at notable surveillance-related bills on Beacon Hill.

This week’s bill, tying in with our new Campaign to Close the Fusion Centers, is “An Act to protect freedom of speech and association”, more conveniently referred to as the “Free Speech Act”. The bill updates last legislative session’s “Act to protect privacy and personal data”, covered in October 2012 on this blog here. It was proposed by Assistant Majority Leader Sen. Harriette Chandler (D-Worcester) and Rep. Jason Lewis (D-Winchester). Its basic purpose is to deal with the fallout from the Policing Dissent scandal, where the Boston Police Department, in concert with the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, was found to have been spying on peaceful groups like Veterans for Peace and defining them as “extremists.” Protesters, including one person I knew, were hauled in and interrogated about their associates, without any actual crime having been committed.

We’re glad to see some action being taken to deal with these problems. But, what does the bill actually say?

[Previous Microscope Mondays covered: the Electronic Privacy Bill; the Drone Privacy Bill; and the infamous Act Updating the Wire Interception Law.]

Continue reading Microscope Monday: Analysis of Massachusetts’ proposed Free Speech Act, S. 642 / H. 1357

Close the Fusion Centers, Free the American People

leo_reynolds_spy_modified

[Artwork adapted slightly from Leo Reynolds on Flickr]

After the 9/11 attacks, a traumatized nation considered whether the attacks could have been thwarted by coordinating intelligence-gathering better between the FBI and CIA. From that impulse grew the fusion centers, of which there are now at least 72 77 86 across the country. Us lucky SOBs here in Massachusetts get two, the Boston Regional Intelligence Center at One Schroeder Plaza, Roxbury, MA 02120 and the Commonwealth Fusion Center at 124 Acton Street, Maynard, MA 01754. The idea was that they would be able to thwart terrorist attacks before they occur, by gathering representatives from different agencies, and in some cases the military and the private sector, together to report on “suspicious activity”. In practice, it has not worked.

Thing is, actual terrorists are relatively thin on the ground. A network of 72 77 86 fusion centers might handle three genuine cases of terrorism between them in any given year. That’s not enough to enable each fusion center to show that it’s doing anything at all. What’s a good bureaucrat to do?

Continue reading Close the Fusion Centers, Free the American People

Yay of the Day: In Ninth Circuit, Fusion Center Employee Not Completely Unaccountable for Infiltrating Peaceful Anti-War Group

The long-running case Panagacos v. Towery deals with the two-year-long infiltration by fusion center employee John Towery of peace groups including Students for a Democratic Society, the Olympia Movement for Justice and Peace, the Industrial Workers of the World, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and an anarchist bookstore in Tacoma (probably this one). Towery is technically a military employee, and courts are typically highly deferential to the military. However, the most recent ruling at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals allows the plaintiffs from these organizations to continue with their First and Fourth Amendment claims against the military. The National Lawyers Guild, which is involved in the case, believes this to be “the first time a court has affirmed people’s ability to sue the military for violating their First and Fourth Amendment rights”.

Good.

There are obvious analogies here to the Boston PD’s gross violations of protesters’ rights documented in the ACLU of Massachusetts’ Policing Dissent report this fall. Again, we see the fusion centers act as a nexus for the investigation and disruption, not of actual terrorist plots, but of peaceful opponents of the military-industrial complex here at home.

All my heroes have FBI files.
“All my heroes have FBI files”, by Jimi G.

Meanwhile, Here in Massachusetts: Legislation Limiting Surveillance Proposed

Many people don’t realize that there’s plenty of activity in US state legislatures around warrants, surveillance and privacy.

Trust me. I’m from the government.

One good bill that has been proposed this session here in Massachusetts is S. 1194 / H. 1336, “An Act to protect privacy and personal data”

These identical bills were brought forward by Senate Majority Whip Harriette Chandler (D-Worcester) and Rep. Jason Lewis (D-Winchester and Stoneham) and strongly advocated for by the ACLU of Massachusetts in the last two legislative sessions.

The bills are mainly concerned with limiting the activities of the Commonwealth Fusion Center and Boston Regional Intelligence Center, and restricting the surveillance of peaceful activists. There’s a lot of reason to suppose that the main effect of the work of these centers is to chill peaceful efforts to petition the government for redress of grievances (as the First Amendment puts it).

If the bills pass, CFC and BRIC will be required to not retain criminal intelligence information or personal data if there is no reasonable suspicion that the individual is involved in criminal conduct or activity. They must adopt information security practices that minimize retransmission of such information, provide an annual report to the secretary of state, and conduct an annual audit of their information collection, which will be a public record. No state or local law enforcement agency, prosecutorial office, criminal intelligence system, police or peace officer, or agent thereof shall track, collect or maintain information about the political, religious or social views, associations or activities of any individual, group, association, organization, corporation, business or partnership or other entity unless such information directly relates to an investigation of criminal activities, and there are reasonable grounds to suspect the subject of the information is involved in criminal conduct. There are further rules specified to limit the dissemination of such “protected information” and to require individuals to sign off on such dissemination so that they can be held accountable for violations.

You can find out here who your state senator and state representative are. Please call them to let them know that you support these bills. This is the list of current supporters:

SENATE: Harriette L. Chandler, Cynthia S. Creem, Kenneth J. Donnelly, James B. Eldridge, Susan C. Fargo, Thomas M. McGee, Karen E. Spilka, Jennifer E. Benson, Steven L. Levy, Martha M. Walz
HOUSE: Frank I. Smizik, William N. Brownsberger, Peter V. Kocot, John P. Fresolo, Kay Khan, Denise Andrews, James Arciero, Cory Atkins, Ruth B. Balser, Jennifer E. Benson, Linda Campbell, Gailanne M. Cariddi, Thomas P. Conroy, Carolyn C. Dykema, James B. Eldridge, Christopher G. Fallon, Linda D. Forry, Sean Garballey, Jonathan Hecht, Bradley H. Jones, Jay R. Kaufman, Stephen Kulik, Steven L. Levy, Elizabeth A. Malia, James J. O’Day, George N. Peterson, Byron Rushing, Jeffrey Sánchez, John W. Scibak, Carl M. Sciortino, Theodore C. Speliotis, William M. Straus, Benjamin Swan, Chris Walsh, Martha M. Walz, Thomas M. Petrolati, Paul Adams, Alice K. Wolf

Symbolic Spending to Combat Terror: Or, Let’s Spend Your Tax Dollars on Snooping rather than on Anything Useful

The new US Senate report on the uselessness of fusion centers reminds me irresistibly of an old episode of “Yes Prime Minister”:

Nobody’s interested in the Social Science Research Council. Or the Milk Marketing Board. Or the Advisory Committee on Dental Establishments. Or the Dumping At Sea Representation Panel. But Government still pays money to support them.
– Don’t they do a lot of good?
– Of course they don’t. They hardly do anything at all.
– Then let’s abolish them.
– No, no, Prime Minister. They are symbols. You don’t fund them for doing work. You fund them to show what you approve of. Most government expenditure is symbolic.

The fusion centers are the signature initiative of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. They were supposed to collate and report quickly on terror threats. The report makes clear that whatever amount – maybe as much as one billion dollars – has been spent on them, has been wasted. Investigators were unable to find a single case where a fusion center had supplied information that thwarted a terrorist threat. Instead, our money has been spent on collecting a heterogeneous mass of partially reliable information on the activities of peaceful activists.

At the same time, the ACLU of Massachusetts’ new report on the Boston Police Department’s Boston Regional Intelligence Center paints a very similar picture, with more casual person-to-person oppression thrown in (video here).

It’s no surprise if ordinary people who oppose the increased power of government to scrutinize our lives, feel anxious about putting their heads above the parapet. I was anxious myself till I became an American citizen this year. Who wouldn’t feel angry at their taxes being wasted investigating groups like Veterans for Peace?

This isn’t about any rational threat assessment. This is about symbolism and fear. The US government has spent roughly one trillion dollars on anti-terrorism efforts since September 11, 2001. That trillion dollars could have saved any number of lives if deployed on useful things. Our roads and bridges are falling apart, our public school have to scrape for money for sports, arts and field trips, and tens of thousands of Americans die each year for lack of basic preventative health care. Rather than helping with those things, our politicians wrap themselves in the flag and pour tax dollars into a black hole labeled “Anti-Terrorism”, without bothering to find out whether we’re spending too much or too little, or what’s working and what’s not. What’s it to them? It’s not their money. It’s your money and mine, and the party has got to stop.

If the fusion centers can’t demonstrate that they are providing a useful service, they should be closed. The entire intelligence, counter-terrorism and defense budget should be audited every year. We should reimpose Constitutional limits on the deep state, requiring government officials to actually justify what they are doing to neutral third parties in the judiciary. No-one gets a get-out clause, in the name of “terrorism” or anything else.

This isn’t a “far-left” thing or a “far-right” thing. Seems like any issue on which the main parties agree gets ruled out of bounds for discussion. The Sunday talk shows are all about the horse race, who’s up and who’s down and who gaffed and who didn’t. But the sad fact that most Republicans and most Democrats agree on wasting our money on stuff like this, doesn’t make it right.