There’s gotta be a pony in there somewhere

by Henry Farrell on February 11, 2006

Ed Felten reports that the Secure Flight initiative (a successor to the much ballyhooed CAPPS II system for grabbing and processing data on airline passengers) has been mothballed, “$200 million later”:

bq. Today, airlines are given a no-fly list and a watch-list, which they are asked to check against their passenger lists. … The 9/11 Commission recommended keeping the lists within the government, and having the government check passengers’ names against the lists. A program designed to do just that would have been a good idea. …There would be privacy worries, but they could be handled with good design and oversight. Instead of sticking to this more modest plan, Secure Flight became a vehicle for pie-in-the-sky plans about data mining and automatic identification of terrorists from consumer databases. As the program’s goals grew more ambitious and collided with practical design and deployment challenges, the program lost focus and seemed to have a different rationale and plan from one month to the next.

Felten was on the initiative’s advisory committee; he knows that whereof he speaks. But the Secure Flight story speaks to a wider set of issues. There’s a whole host of government initiatives at different stages of development and deployment which apply data mining procedures to big databases in order to identify potential terrorists, including, most notoriously, the illegal NSA program. As far as we can tell, they all have one important feature in common – they _don’t work._ The NSA program generated an awful lot of “calls to Pizza Hut”: but not very much in the way of actual leads. The real positives are overwhelmed by the false ones. There are uses for data mining in law enforcement, but the notion that it can somehow magically spotlight the terrorists is wishful thinking, given current technology.

This gets obscured in current debates – both the proponents of these programs (such as Poindexter and his mates), and their opponents (such as the ACLU) have an interest in hyping them up. The killer argument against them isn’t that they’re a bad tradeoff between privacy rights and security (although they are). It’s that they suck up hundreds of millions of dollars, and don’t contribute anything worthwhile to our security in the first place. Big data mining initiatives are the Star Wars program of the information age. A massive waste of money and time.

The Papers Continue Fatuous

by Kieran Healy on February 11, 2006

“Matt Yglesias”: and “the Poorman”: have already pointed out what a staggeringly stupid contribution “Andrew Sullivan recently made”: in the wake of the Great Cartoon Debacle. But something that boneheaded may need more than one or two blows of the mallet in order to crack. Sullivan is appalled to see the head of Hezbollah “threatening”: to “defend our prophet with our blood, not our voices,” as if threats of violence like this were anything new from that department. He insists that it “is outrageous to be informed by a crowd of hundreds of thousands that the West must give up its freedoms in order to avoid violence.” Well, of course it is — but it’s also a lot of posturing, and Sullivan obliges by striking a pose in return. He then gives us the inevitable non-sequitur: “I’m relieved to see that this moment has forced some very hard thinking on the left.” Matt has “already covered”: why this is bollocks. But then he goes on to employ one of the favorite tropes of this genre of bullshit, the anonymous liberal correspondent with second thoughts. “Another liberal reader,” he says, emails to say that

I’m honestly starting to suspect that, before this is over, European nations are going to have exactly four choices in dealing with their entire Moslem populations — for elementary safety’s sake: (1) Capitulate totally to them and become a Moslem continent. (2) Intern all of them. (3) Deport all of them. (4) Throw all of them into the sea.

Jesus wept. As it happens, I’ve been re-reading Alan Bennett’s diaries. In an entry written towards the end of the Falklands War he notes:

The papers continue fatuous. Peregrine Worsthorne suggests that, having won this war, our troops emerging with so much credit, Mrs Thatcher might consider using them at home to solve such problems as the forthcoming rail strike or indeed to break the power of the unions altogether, overlooking the fact that this is precisely what we are supposed to object to about the regime in Argentina.

It’s a hollow joke that Sullivan’s blog is graced by a tag-line taken from Orwell — and one about not being able to see what’s in front of your face, at that. Instead of being impressed by the keen eliminationist _realpolitik_ of his idiot correspondents, he’d be better off re-reading Lord Hoffman’s remarks from December 2004 on “the real threat to the life of the nation”: They go double for cartoons. I certainly hope European countries are not about to “capitulate” to demands from some radical muslims that civil society be brought to an end for the sake of the prophet’s honor. (Whether certain newspaper editors deserve a kick in the pants for pointlessly stirring-up shit is another matter.) Nor, I take it, are they about to round up and dump “all of them” (for any value of “them”) into the sea. And if some countries _have_ started down one or other of those roads, it certainly isn’t because some clerical thugs are so awesomely powerful that they are in a position to destroy the institutions of western democracy. You’ll have to look elsewhere to find people with the leverage to do real damage there.