Wednesday, February 08, 2006

John Allen Paulos and The Mathematics of Wiretapping

Several hundred years ago Benjamin Franklin remarked "Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither." That sentiment still resonates today.

Irrespective of the matter of illegality (such mundane legal "minutiae" as the NSA's failure to obtain FISA warrants, blatant violation of Fourth Amendment..), there are more pragmatic considerations concerning the efficacy of the stategy.

JS Mill's "harm principle" has always enjoyed axiomatic status within the so-called "liberal democracies", though the damage caused by the shape-shifting "War on Terror" is not merely collateral: one of it's key strategies is to "attack our enemies" by undermining the liberal and democratic natures of our own societies.

Like a punch-drunk Jake LaMotta, the guiding principle of the paranoid, bellicose, burnt-out doppelgangers masquerading as the liberal democracies seems to be: "If in doubt, attack ourselves."

Still, for the benefit of those recalcitrant idealists who purport to attach some significance to the "harm principle", we might as well elucidate it:

the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will , is to prevent harm to others.

The question, as always, is where to strike the balance: how much use (or abuse) of executive power is required to prevent how much reasonably foreseeable harm. Presumably, the power wielded should be proportionate to the harm prevented? It's also implicit that it should be precise rather than indiscriminate (since power wielded over the innocent doesn't prevent harm -- such misdirected power is, logically, harmful in itself).

Professor of mathematics at Temple University, John Allen Paulos observes:

Defenders of these governmental intrusions generally point to the threat that terrorists' access to international telecommunications channels.... There is a trade-off, they intone, between liberty and security.

This is, of course, true in a general sense, but what I find interesting is that so many of the defenders of these policies would never make similar arguments in other contexts, say about the need to limit unfettered access to handguns.

The second amendment stipulating that the "the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed" is interpreted so literally that it has led, in part, to almost 400 of my fellow Philadelphians (and nearly 12,000 people nationally) being killed last year by guns — not by terrorists, not by porn addicts, but by hot-headed people with guns. Some have even argued we all have a right to own machine guns.

Why are these unrelenting deaths by handguns not considered a matter of national security requiring a minuscule loss of liberty in the form of stricter gun laws? And why, to cite another example, is limiting environmental extravagance not considered a matter of national security requiring a minuscule loss of liberty in the form of more energy-efficient vehicles?

Loss of liberty and privacy, if legally sanctioned and absolutely necessary (and this is a huge and unfulfilled "if"), should at least result in some good. A serious problem with massive, untargeted and illegal wiretaps...., however, is that they'd likely be ineffective. The volume of the information generated by them would make it essentially impossible to follow up on the "leads" generated. There isn't the manpower to investigate more than a tiny fraction of them in real time.

Yet another problem is the perennial problem of false positives (about which I wrote...when the Total Information Awareness program was being considered). Even if an accurate profile of potential terrorists is drawn, the fact that such a vanishingly small percentage of us are terrorists means that the vast majority of the people investigated will be innocent.

Even if the probability that the purported terrorist profile is accurate were an astonishing 99 percent (if someone has terrorist ties, the profile will pick him or her out 99 percent of the time, and, for ease of computation, if someone does not have such ties, the profile will pick him or her out only 1 percent of the time), most of the hits would be false positives.

For illustration, let's further assume that one out of a million American residents has terrorist ties — that's approximately 300 people — and the profile will pick out 99 percent, or 297 of them. Great. But what of the approximately 300 million innocent Americans? The profile will also pick out 1 percent of them, "only" 3 million false positives, innocent people who will be caught up in a Kafkaesque dragnet.

It should be reiterated that such broad scale wiretapping.... is not only of questionable legality if not downright unconstitutional, but it is also ineffective and a waste of resources. Terrorism is a problem, but so are handguns, health care, the deficit, the environment, education, and a host of other issues that are more important to our personal and, I think, our national security.

More here

1 comment:

Gothamimage said...

It's only ineffective is you assume the goal is stop and prevent attacks. But if you think that they goal of creating and exploiting divisions and stresses in the domestic political scene is part of it, (as it was with much of Nixon's politics)then you may have to re-do the math/