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Friday, May 19, 2006

In Re: NSA "Surveillance", Airline Tickets and Baggage Checks 

As the noise increases and the signal declines, it strikes me as worth making the observation that the NSA seems to be doing something which the airline industry and DOD did awhile back, which also raised some privacy hackles, but which has amounted to nothing of any import either. The DOD asked the airlines to submit passenger records so they could perform a bunch of computer analysis, and develop correlations among traveling passengers, destinations, credit cards, etc. The privacy advocates and uber libertarians went bonkers and sued. Those lawsuits amounted to nothing because, surprise surprise, THERE'S NO DAMAGE.

In the case of the massive computerized manipulation of phone record data, it is hard to conclude that anything terribly invasive is going on other than correlation analysis. That is, once they have established that a non-US caller is an al qaeda affiliate or suspect, they follow call "hops" to try to correlate against other known information -- maybe charge cards, travel information, drivers license data -- and further correlate that against names collected in other databases, like flight school students. Pretty smart stuff really, and a shame we weren't doing it before 9/11. In fact, they probably reverse engineered the pre-9/11 activities and communications of the known hijackers and their related data to create algorithms for the current analysis. It's how we figure out to whom to pay much closer attention and perhaps serve warrants.

Another observation I'd make, is that anybody in this country who flies undergoes more invasive checking to get on the bloody plane. Before people have fits about violations of this and that, I wish they'd wait to see if there are any damages. Unless we are hermits, most people in this country willingly offer up this data every day to buy online or by catalog. The government doing con-joint analysis (which American Express does in their card business in order to develop a direct marketing offer to you) or searching for correlations is EXACTLY how privacy advocates should want to search for the needle in the haystack -- as opposed to having the FBI knock on doors and drag people in for questioning or quarantining whole groups of people (or preventing entry).

The whole thing is silly really.

14 Comments:

By Blogger Dylan, at Fri May 19, 02:10:00 PM:

"Those lawsuits amounted to nothing because, surprise surprise, THERE'S NO DAMAGE."

Unforunately for the telecom companies in this intance, they appear to face statutory damages of $1000 per record.  

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Fri May 19, 02:18:00 PM:

Interesting speculation about reverse-engineering the communications of the hijackers to develop procedures for current analysis.

I wonder if we have anybody war gaming this stuff, perhaps setting up fake terrorist cells to try to find vulnerable points. Of course that would do us no good if the people doing it lacked the pre-9/11 imagination to see that a jetliner might also serve as a piloted cruise missile.

I'm reminded of the plot line from an old movie, Three Days of the Condor. It concerned one man's unwitting encounter with a super-secret and ultimately rogue CIA program that mined stories and novels for useful information. It seems the research group reading these stories uncovered something too secret and everyone was eliminated but our hero (played, of course, by Robert Redford) who, fortunately for him, was out at the time.

Ah, those were the days...  

By Blogger The Leading Wedge, at Fri May 19, 02:58:00 PM:

I don't disagree, but have concerns nonetheless - not so much about what is going on right now, but what might develop if we continue down this road. The fact that we gave up some privacy in the past is not an argument to continue to do so. This article has some important points, in my opinion. In particular, who's watching the watchers?  

By Anonymous MikeT, at Fri May 19, 03:18:00 PM:

Doesn't it at least bother you that the original encrypted version was scrapped by Bush? The original version used encryption to prohibit casual searchs through the database, allowing the agents to only see the relevant information when it got flagged.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Fri May 19, 03:46:00 PM:

"I wonder if we have anybody war gaming this stuff, perhaps setting up fake terrorist cells to try to find vulnerable points."

Since the 80's.

"Of course that would do us no good if the people doing it lacked the pre-9/11 imagination to see that a jetliner might also serve as a piloted cruise missile."

(to my knowledge) Those studies focused on military and other security related or political targets. The idea that a terrorist group would simply want to kill as many civilians as possible is kind of... new, compared to the old antics of the PLO and Red Brigade, who had grand political objectives to achieve. Even the IRA (which was exceptionally vicious for its day) wasn't as bloodthirsty as Al Qaeda is. The anti-terror studies that I know of focused on hostage rescue, anti-saboteur ops, and personal security of key personnel.

"Doesn't it at least bother you that the original encrypted version was scrapped by Bush? The original version used encryption to prohibit casual searchs through the database, allowing the agents to only see the relevant information when it got flagged."

No. As an intel person, I'll be damned before I let some machine decide what part of the information I'm allowed to consider. Purposeful exploitation of the design, programming errors, oversights, and sheer inconvenience all argue against it.

Also, I'd like to see a computer program which can determine when the arabic phrase for 'apple juice' means 'apple juice' or when it means 'plutonium.'  

By Blogger Lanky_Bastard, at Fri May 19, 08:05:00 PM:

We didn't have to resort to spying on ourselves during the Cold War. I don't see why a few terrorists have everyone wetting their beds. If you want to argue we need secret police to preserve the Republic, then fine. Anything short of that, and I vote to preserve civil liberties.  

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Fri May 19, 09:44:00 PM:

I don't see why a few terrorists have everyone wetting their beds.

And when one of those terrorists manages to set off a nuclear device in New York Harbor I suppose your reaction will be: Gee, what's all the fuss?  

By Blogger Screwy Hoolie, at Fri May 19, 11:09:00 PM:

sirius, lanky,

Terrorism = bad
Forsaking Liberty for Temporary Security = bad

CardinalPark,

1. The "what will happen down the road" argument is a good one. Without appropriate, informed, judicious, principled oversight, domestic spying/data gathering is easily abused. Tripartite Government please.

2. This kind of stuff is already happening: "Earlier this week NBC News exposed the existence of a secret Pentagon database to track intelligence gathered inside the United States. The database including information on dozens of anti-war protests and rallies particularly actions targeting military recruiting.
The list included: counter-military recruiting meetings held at a Quaker Meeting House in Lake Forth, Florida. Anti-nuclear protests staged in Nebraska on the 50th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of Nagasaki. An anti-war protest organized by military families outside Fort Bragg in North Carolina. And a rally in San Diego to support war resister Pablo Parades. The Pentagon database described all of these events as threats."

3. If we move towards even the most benign of Big Brothers, the terrorists have won. A fearful nation hands over its right to privacy, allowing an untrusted administration access to every corner of our lives.

Be prepared. But don't be afraid.  

By Blogger Assistant Village Idiot, at Fri May 19, 11:30:00 PM:

The use of the term "secret police" seems rather a false dichotomy. Either we forswear all internal eavesdropping or we have a secret police. Uh, I think there might be some choices in between that.

Screwy Hoolie, it would be interesting if you addressed the comments about privacy in the OP, rather than just reciting what you would have said anyway once the bell ringing "surveillance" made you start salivating.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Sat May 20, 12:35:00 PM:

"We didn't have to resort to spying on ourselves during the Cold War."

(laughter deleted) And so then why, praytell, is J. E. Hoover so despised and villified by civil liberty activists? The FBI was extremely successful at countering Soviet espionage and sabotage attempts while he was in charge, (ref: The Mitrokhin Archive) and he spied on everyone. The FBI infiltrated leftist movements including peace activists, neo-revolutionary and separatist groups, militant unions, et cetera, and more than a few times identified actual Soviet agents.

"Earlier this week NBC News exposed the existence of a secret Pentagon database to track intelligence gathered inside the United States."

Everything you listed off was public knowledge. Oh no.  

By Blogger Lanky_Bastard, at Sat May 20, 04:11:00 PM:

"And when one of those terrorists manages to set off a nuclear device in New York Harbor I suppose your reaction will be: Gee, what's all the fuss?"

Well I'll be living in Manhattan starting August (which gives you an idea how concerned I am about that scenario). In the unlikely event things go down and I'm the victim of a terror attack (yes, there will be more someday), you've permission to invoke my name in pursuit of the people who caused it. But please don't invoke my memory to justify curtailing people's civil liberties. That's just not what I believe in.

The Soviet Union was a much bigger threat than people who still ride camels. We prevailed over them because we were the greater nation and ideology. Americans should be smart enough to deal with current threats without compromising that ideology. It's disgraceful.

By the by, the middle ground between secret police and no internal eavesdropping is called "judicial warrants". That's not the path we've chosen.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Sun May 21, 01:13:00 PM:

"The Soviet Union was a much bigger threat than people who still ride camels."

1) Bigger, but not more likely; the USSR could be (and was) deterred from being too aggressive through conventional military and political threats. Al Qaeda is not. They look forward to death so long as they take you out with them.

2) Based on a derogatory generalization. (it's ok if a leftist does it?) I can assure you that most Middle Eastern Arabs, especially the ones who become terrorists, are quite familiar with automobiles, boats, and aircraft, and have used all three in suicide attacks.

"We prevailed over them because we were the greater nation and ideology. Americans should be smart enough to deal with current threats without compromising that ideology. It's disgraceful."

How romanticized. I'm a little confused about how you consider the FBI's invasive counter-espionage methods during the Cold War (as I mentioned above) to be in line with American ideology when almost everyone else disagrees. But given that you do think that, why should the NSA not be allowed to do something actually less intrusive and open to abuse now?

May I venture that the old 'Hindsight is 20/20' adage applies? That is, you can see now how such methods might have paid off then, because it was before your time and we won, but that *less severe* tactics now should be condemned because they're happening in your lifetime and therefore seem so much more terrible. How else would one explain a willingness to accept past (and truly illegal) civil rights infringements but not current one that are, at worst, in legal grey areas?  

By Blogger Rob, at Sun May 21, 09:09:00 PM:

This post is fatuous. I'd say more but it's a waste of time.  

By Blogger Lanky_Bastard, at Sun May 21, 11:43:00 PM:

Dawnfire, I don't know where you got it in your head that I approve of Hoover's secret files. Those were also illegal, anti-American, and abhorrent. If you insist on this analogy between the phone database and Hoover's secret records, then fine. They're both wrong.  

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