How not to spot a terrorist
February 9, 2006
Paranoid America -- by which I mean its governors -- has long dreamed of foolproof technology to guard the Homeland from subversion, or penetration, by alien hostiles.
In its latest variant, the vaunted technology comes in the form of the sweeps by the computers of the National Security Agency (NSA), programmed to intercept hundreds of millions of phone, e-mail and fax messages. These days, as much as a third of global communications are on fiber-optic cable routes that that pass through the United States.
The NSA's programmers claim that the artificial intelligence programs -- terabytes of speech, text and image data -- monitoring the filters are of such refinement that they can determine the sex, age and class of the communicators and, no doubt (though they take care not to boast of any such profiling), their genetic and linguistic ethnicity, too. After all, Middle Easterners are surely a prime target.
A very useful story in the Washington Post for Feb. 5, headlined "Surveillance Net Yields Few Subjects" cites "knowledgeable sources" as saying about 5,000 Americans have had their conversations recorded or e-mails read without court authority. Of these, less than 10 U.S. citizens or residents a year "have aroused enough suspicion during warrantless eavesdropping to justify interception of their domestic calls, as well."
Such intercepts would require a warrant from a judge, with the request couched in terms of probable cause, usually defined as being a one-in-two chance of the suspicions being justified. So clearly a final cull of 10 or so a year out of hundreds of thousands or, more likely, tens of millions, means the "probable cause" standard was tossed aside.
So "data mining" by artificially programmed computers is a proceeding that is not only constitutionally illegal but a technological fantasy. The Post quotes Jeff Jonas, now chief scientist at IBM Entity Analytics, as saying pattern-matching techniques that "look at people's behavior to predict terrorist intent are so far from reaching the level of accuracy that's necessary that I see them as nothing but civil liberty infringement engines."
Every era produces its techno-Panglosses, eager to guard America, and demanding torrents of public money to that end. In Reagantime it was the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), with missiles programmed to launch on warning that enemy warheads were plummeting into the Homeland. Long since discredited by one series of failed tests after another, this souvenir of Reagantime still marches expensively through the Defense Budget.
That spasm of military Keynesianism has thus far merely cost money. Back in the early part of the twentieth century, the data-miners and SDI fantasists had their equivalents in men of intellectual eminence who successfully agitated for filters to be installed at America's ports of entry to detect genetic terrorists, i.e., people of bloodstock deemed by the fearful eugenicists to be a threat to America's gene pool.
The U.S. Immigration Act of 1924 sanctioned the use of bogus U.S. Army IQ scores of World War I (themselves promoted by eugenic racists) to "scientifically verify" the supposed hereditary mental inferiority of Jews, Italians, Poles, Hungarians, Spaniards and other non-Anglo-Saxon Protestant racial and ethnic groups.
The screening was designed to address the fears expressed in Charles Davenport's influential best seller of 1911, "Heredity in Relation to Eugenics," where he prophesied that if unchecked by genetic national security agents, "the population of the United States will, on account of the great influx of blood from South-Eastern Europe, rapidly become darker in pigmentation, smaller in stature, more mercurial, more attached to music and art, more given to crimes of larceny, kidnapping, assault, and vagrancy than were the original English settlers."
Davenport even wanted to send eugenics inspectors to Europe to examine all would-be immigrants for genetic flaws. In the end, this task passed to his German admirers.
In his great 1975 tract, "The Legacy of Malthus," Allan Chase, narrating this shameful story, asks the question, how many of the 6,065,704 would-be immigrants excluded by racial quotas set by the eugenicists survived the war? For sure, most of the Jews, Poles and Russians identified by the Nazis (using U.S. eugenic "science") were rounded up and exterminated.
To the phrenologists, genetic data miners, we can add the forensic finger printers. I've long believed that the "scientific certainty" of unique finger print-matching is mostly theater, using suspect forensic work to bewitch judge and jury, as it has for over a hundred years. Finger-printing, be it recalled, was first sold as a crime fighting tool by Charles Darwin's cousin, Ernest Galton, a fervent eugenicist.
In 2004, the FBI's top fingerprint analysts, subsequently buttressed by an outside "forensic expert," insisted that a print lifted from a bag at the scene of the Madrid terror bombing in that year was "a 100 percent match" with one of 20 sets of prints spat out by the FBI's integrated, automated, fingerprint identification system, containing a database of some 20 million fingerprints. (To be fair to the IAFIS computer system, it said, "close, no match.)
The print thrown up by the FBI's computer belonged to the left index finger of Brandon Mayfield, a lawyer working in Beaverton, Ore. A judge in Portland duly acknowledged probable cause in signing a warrant for surveillance of Mayfield. He was spied upon and arrested. All the while, the Spanish police were insisting that there was no match between Mayfield's print and the one in the van, which they determined belonged to the right middle finger of Ouhnane Daoud, an Algerian national living in Spain, whom they duly arrested. Mayfield, who was nowhere near Spain when the bombs went off, went free.
The claims of scientific precision are as suspect today as they were a century ago when Davenport was laboring on his racist tract and the sterilizers mustering strength here in America.
These days we have data-mining, "100 percent certain" DNA hits, retinal ID, face recognition systems. Elementary constitutional protections get swept aside. As they reviewed the NSA data-minings, a prime concern of the Democrats was the potential liability of U.S. phone carriers (who poured money into their campaign treasuries in 1996 to purchase telecommunications "reform"). They didn't question the very premises of the data mining. Is this strange? Not in a world where the New York Times can publish an article , as it did on Jan. 8, on the Democrats' failure to gain popular traction, in which the difficult words "war" and "Iraq" never intruded.
Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through www.counterpunch.com. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
COPYRIGHT 2006 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.
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