Magazine article USA TODAY

There Are Better Ways for NSA to Root out Terrorists

Magazine article USA TODAY

There Are Better Ways for NSA to Root out Terrorists

Article excerpt

THE PUBLIC perception of the National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program, the one promulgated by government, largely has been that of a set of protocols fine-tuned to the task of preventing terrorist attacks. However, less is known about the true nature of NSA data searches, their limitations, faults of the technology, and the comparative value of less high-tech investigative techniques.

The question of how efficient the Mass Warrantless Surveillance Network (MWSN) is, or how well its technologies work, can be understood in terms of how accurate it is, which, in this context, means what percentage of the time it correctly identifies someone as a terrorist. However, for every such "true positive" the system returns, there also are a vast number of "false positives"--that is, numerous cases of falsely identifying someone as a terrorist. This is the problem of false positives, and it permeates the entire MWSN.

One salient instance of the situation is the use of pattern-matching searches with upstream programs to identify terrorists. This particular type of search involves construction of algorithms that look for behavior patterns associated with a specific target group. In commercial advertising, this means creating a profile of prospective consumers who are most likely to be interested in a product that is being marketed.

For instance, a magazine about hunting would attempt to target a demographic population that most likely would be interested in going hunting. Thus, according to a report of the Fishing and Wildlife Service, the most likely hunters would be white males between the ages of 55 and 64, living in rural regions of the Southeast, with annual incomes between $50,000 and $100,000. Given that 5.7% of the U.S. population hunts, targeting this group would make it more likely to reach prospective subscribers--but, even so, such bulk behavioral advertising tends to have a relatively low, single-digit positive response rate. This means that the false positives occur in the 90% range.

However, it is not as easy to create a demographic of prospective terrorists as it is of prospective hunters. Indeed, in contrast to individuals who go hunting, there have been relatively few terrorist attacks on the U.S. that enable construction of a terrorist demographic. Consequently, the pattern searches for prospective terrorists typically take an indirect approach. This involves looking for anomalous Internet communication patterns; that is, cyber behavior that does not match the cyber behavior of average Internet users--for example, atypical Internet searches, site visits, e-mail exchanges, and credit card purchases.

The assumption that an unusual set of behaviors makes one a prospective terrorist is a questionable one. On the contrary, it appears that conventional means of investigating possible terrorist attacks--such as the use of informants, community tips, routine law enforcement, suspicious activity reports, and other non-NSA intelligence--have been the most fruitful means of preventing such attacks.

A 2014 report ("Do NSA's Bulk Surveillance Programs Stop Terrorists?) prepared by the New American Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, public policy institute, maintains that the majority of the terrorism cases that occurred after Sept. 11, 2001, have been identified by these more conventional modes of investigation. Moreover, the contributions made by NSA's MWSN toward identifying terrorist plots before they occur have been "minimal." Further, the report states, "Our review of the government's claims about the role that NSA 'bulk' surveillance of phone and e-mail communications records has had in keeping the U.S. safe from terrorism shows that these claims are overblown and even misleading."

Based on its investigation of 225 individuals charged in the U.S. with terrorism since Sept. 11,2001, the report concludes that NSA's bulk telephone metadata program, operating pursuant to Section 215 of the U. …

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