Monday, December 19, 2005

The myth of the magic computer

EPIC reports that

"At least 30,000 air passengers have been improperly matched to names on federal watch lists since last November, according to Jim Kennedy, head of the Transportation Security Administration redress office. Each of the 30,000 individuals submitted personal information and identification documents to the agency in hopes of resolving their misidentification problems, and were issued letters to help them clear security more quickly. A few dozen more people were unable to benefit from this redress process. Kennedy provided the information at a meeting of the Department of Homeland Security's Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee in Washington last week. In related news, a Swedish newspaper cited European airline sources as saying that 80,000 names were on the watch list provided by the U.S. government to airlines for passenger screening."

This myth that if we collect enough information on enough people then a computer system will magically point a genie-like finger at the bad guys really does lead to a dangerous misappropriation of scarce resources. Money that could be used to recruit and train more intelligence officers etc and provide the resource base for them to gather intelligence, investigate, engage in preventative measures and emergency response in the face of serious crime, is being thrown at vaguely specified computer systems like that for the UK's ID card scheme and Secure Flight.

Think about it. 30000 people are obliged to apply for a letter to declare they are not really terrorist suspects and most of them probably shouldn't really be on a no fly list. How much effort is going into processing those claims alone? How does it help with airline security? What if someone getting an all clear letter really is a serious security risk?

EPIC also point to this neat idea - someone is selling the first ten parts of the US Bill of Rights on pocket sized pieces of metal and encouraging folks to carry them wherever they have to pass through metal detectors such as those at airports. They suggest:

"The next time you travel by air, take the Bill of Rights - Security Edition along with you. When asked to empty your pockets, proudly toss the Bill of Rights in the plastic bin.

You need to get used to offering up the bill of rights for inspection and government workers enforcing the USAPATRIOT ACT need to get used to deciding if you'll be allowed to keep the Bill of Rights with you when you travel."

Perhaps someone could do likewise on this side of the pond with the Human Rights Act, or the European Convention on Human Rights, or even the UN's Universal Declaration on Human Rights?

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