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Poindexter's dream comes true

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The pony in the manure pile

Data mining is good for feeding targeted advertisements to likely punters. It can improve returns on an advertising investment by increasing the likelihood that a consumer will actually find a particular product or service interesting, although it is still an incredibly blunt instrument. Still, if it increases the response rate to an advertisement from, say, two per 1,000 to six per 1,000, it's a real money saver.

But is it a real life saver? We have seen data mining in action in airports, and it appears that every single "detection" has been a false positive. Meanwhile, an unknown number of undesirables continue to move about via commercial air travel. We can't know how many times this has happened, but it doesn't matter. Even if it's happened only once, the rate of false negatives, too, is 100 per cent.

Terrorists and criminals are caught when they make mistakes. They confide in the wrong person and are ratted, or their communications are intercepted, or they arouse suspicion in the real world because of their behaviour. The so-called Millennium bomber, Ahmed Ressam, was not picked out from any data set; he acted strangely in front of a border guard and was investigated based on a gut feeling which turned out to be spot on.

So when Snowden talks about "analysts trawling through huge amounts of data" as if this were some discredited, archaic practice, we should bear in mind that people, unlike machines, have instincts and gut feelings sharpened by years of experience that make dealing with data a far more productive, if less convenient, business. People recognise patterns; machines stink at it. And people imagine patterns, which is another place where the intuitive process can come in. And we need it, because that human intuitive process, however flawed, is the best protection we've got, and ever will have, against human adversaries who imagine, and think, and learn.

Why not?

But Singapore will give this gimmick a whirl, and so long as they can afford it, and don't actually rely on it, little harm will be done. But the mere fact of it being in use makes it more likely that other countries will adopt it, so it will likely spread. And eventually, it will be relied on, although the worst will happen nevertheless. Instead of securocrats hauled before Congress to answer the question "how did your people fail to connect the dots?" government CIOs/CTOs can answer the question, "how did your multi-billion-dollar miracle system fail to connect the dots?"

Unfortunately, no one will accept the only true answer: "we do our best, but in spite of it all, bad things inevitably happen". Rather, there will be a call for easier access to more data and more legal power to demand it. "Give us the tools we need, Senator, and we will deliver."

Governments across the globe are already engaged in data mining and analysis to a degree unimaginable a decade ago. But much of it is confined to single agencies. The next logical step is to unite the databases, according to Poindexter's ambition. It's not going to work, and it can well be criticised on grounds of wasting money and resources -- but from a privacy point of view, really, who cares at this point? If the FBI is already reading my email and listening to my phone calls without a warrant - if the TSA is already scouring my credit history every time I book a flight - why should I care if the DOD can as well?

We might as well invite everyone to the privacy-invasion party. If one loses one's virginity to a single rapist, one doesn't retain 'more virginity' than they would if they'd lost it in a gang rape. ®

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