Friday, December 15, 2006

Effective Counterterrorism and the Limited Role of Predictive Data Mining

Schneier also points to a terrific report by Jeff Jonas and Jim Harper at the Cato Institute pointing out that data mining is not the holy grail solution to countering terrorism that it is widely sold as. The executive summary:

"The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001,
spurred extraordinary efforts intended to protect
America from the newly highlighted scourge of
international terrorism. Among the efforts was the
consideration and possible use of “data mining” as
a way to discover planning and preparation for terrorism.
Data mining is the process of searching
data for previously unknown patterns and using
those patterns to predict future outcomes.

Information about key members of the 9/11
plot was available to the U.S. government prior
to the attacks, and the 9/11 terrorists were closely
connected to one another in a multitude of
ways. The National Commission on Terrorist
Attacks upon the United States concluded that,
by pursuing the leads available to it at the time,
the government might have derailed the plan.

Though data mining has many valuable uses,
it is not well suited to the terrorist discovery
problem. It would be unfortunate if data mining
for terrorism discovery had currency within
national security, law enforcement, and technology
circles because pursuing this use of data
mining would waste taxpayer dollars, needlessly
infringe on privacy and civil liberties, and misdirect
the valuable time and energy of the men and
women in the national security community.

What the 9/11 story most clearly calls for is a
sharper focus on the part of our national security
agencies—their focus had undoubtedly sharpened
by the end of the day on September 11,
2001—along with the ability to efficiently locate,
access, and aggregate information about specific

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