Spying on everyone to catch terrorists doesn't add up

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This week, your deep-seated fears have been confirmed. You are being spied on. In a series of leaks and media reports, it has been revealed that both the Canadian Communications Security Establishment and US National Security Agency are collecting vast stores of electronic metadata: who we communicate with, when, from where, how often, what we read, etc. The electronic trail one leaves in the virtual world can paint an intimate picture.

Spying on everyone is a clear signpost on the road to a different type of society and many are willing to sacrifice liberty for security. But this is actually not the deal on offer. It is simply a sacrifice of liberty. Snooping on everyone is a poor way to catch bad guys.

In the pervasive way that an emergency or state of exception quickly morphs into normal life, this eavesdropping authority was legislated into being shortly after 9/11. It has been quietly renewed in both countries since. Its true scope has not yet been fully made public.

The eye of the state falls upon us all. Ergo, we are all suspects. In an effort to put this into words, pundits evoke Orwell or Zamyatin not so much for allegory as description. In the weeks following these revelations, sales of Orwell's 1984 have spiked 9,500 per cent. The orders rolling into Amazon.com are quietly tracked by these same government algorithms -- cold formulas that never sleep, but still fail to see how ironic this is.

We are told that this is all to catch terrorists. Skeptics are met with the loud retort that if you’re not doing anything wrong, you ought to have nothing to hide.

Either defecation or onanism, I submit, would be classic exceptions, but let's set aside arguments about privacy for a moment and even the fact that the threat of terrorism is used primarily as a fear tactic.

Putting an entire society under the microscope is a bad way to catch the enemy of the day. It is a search for a terrorist needle in a haystack of the global population of phone and computer users. It also happens every day at every airport. Anyone who flies on a plane becomes a suspect.

The whole population of Boston was locked down in the search for the two Marathon bombers. They were eventually found, but the lockdown made a suspect of every single individual that was not indoors. In the end, it proved to be more effective for authorities to analyze bomb fragments or chase down anyone carjacking and throwing grenades.

Draining the ocean is a less than effective means of finding Nemo. It is, however, very effective at messing with all the fish.

This is the logic of anti-terrorism legislation. It creates giant suspect populations, which aside from the obvious authoritarian implications, means that authorities have giant pools of suspects to drown in.

This is the paradox of the false positive.

Governments snoop up all this data to weed out the terrorists, they tell us. It is grist for what Cory Doctorow calls an "automatic terrorism detector." Even if such a detector was 99 per cent effective, which would be amazing for a public works project, it would create a huge pool of suspects (false positives), much larger than the very rare terrorist (true positive). And such data analytic efforts are much, much less effective than 99 per cent.

The population of Canada is 34 million. A 99 per cent effective automatic terrorism detector will still spit out a list of 340,000 Canadian suspects. To catch any of the handful of actual terrorists in Canada, authorities would have to investigate hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

The automatic terrorism detector, which Doctorow theorized but our governments appear to be actually building, scoops up way, way more innocent people than actual terrorists. And once it has done so, there is the little matter of sorting the former from the latter.

As Cory Doctorow writes, "when you try to find something really rare, your test's accuracy has to match the rarity of the thing you're looking for."

In Homeland, Doctorow describes, for a non-technical audience, the myriad of ways that a user of electronic communications might bury her tracks in an ocean of noise -- every visit to a political website rerouted and anonymized, every data point receding into a random history of LOLcats and celebrity gossip blogs.

But back at the automatic-terrorism detector, they haven't read Doctorow. They're pretty busy with their 340,000 new suspects. The detector has not found the needle; it has created another haystack. But in so doing, it has poked and prodded each individual piece of hay.

But the state knows math. The state paid attention at school. So one wonders, if not to catch the incredibly rare specimen of a terrorist, what is all this data collecting in aid of?

Snoop-turned-whistleblower, Edward Snowden, left his job as an NSA analyst in Hawaii to tell the world about the odious electronic wiretapping system he once operated. Anyone can be a target. Authorities can retroactively dig up evidence from their massive storehouse of data. If you look hard enough, he said, you can find something on almost anyone.

In an interview with the Guardian in Hong Kong, Snowden said, "if they want to get you, in time they will."

Thank you for reading this article. Your interest has been noted.


Garth Mullins is a writer, long time social justice activist and three-chord propagandist living in East Vancouver. You can follow him @garthmullins on Twitter.

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