On the Necessity of Data Mining

This is a cleaned up and expanded version of a comment I left on Eric Umansky’s site.

Eric Umansky writes:

And by the way, turns out NSA phone records sweeps are looking increasing TIA-ike. It’s not about afiliations with terrorists. As Noah Schachtman puts it, the latest details suggest: “It doesn’t matter who you know. It’s what you do that gets you in trouble. If you spend money and buy plane tickets like Mohammed Atta did, then maybe you’re a terrorist, too. Same goes for the kind, and frequency, of phone calls you make.”

As Douglas Farah at the Counterterrorism Blog notes

The coming shape of the Islamist jihad war is becoming clear: self-starting groups that are increasingly decentralized structure, linked by shifting networks and communicating almost exclusively through the Internet.

The chief architect of this strategy is the Spanish-Syrian strategist Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, the subject of a very nice piece in The Washington Post, whose 1,600 page treastise, `The Call for a Global Islamic Resistance,’ has been circulating on Web sites for 18 months.

In other words, one of the major shapes that terrorism will take in the future is individuals initiating and committing terrorist acts following templates of action such as those that are offered up in Setmariam’s work, and on various Internet Jihad websites.

A movement is envisioned of newby Mujaheddin each with 1,600 pages of detailed templates, written by experienced terrorists, about how to conduct terrorist attacks. They may not know any formally affiliated terrorists. In the dangerous case, they will meet other newby Mujaheddin at the mosque and incubate each others’ jihadist ambitions using the material in Jihad websites and especially “The Call for a Global Islamic Resistance.”

We have two choices, either (1) let them commit terrorist acts just like John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, or (2) stop them. If we let them kill at will, then we are sheep waiting to be slaughtered. If we are to stop them, how do we find them? The only way to find them is to look for suspicious behavior. Look at websites visited, phone calls made and received, special training, medical records, special materials, plane tickets, train tickets, van rentals, etc, and the patterns of all these things. Look at the things that TIA looked at.

All this knowledge is powerful. In the wrong hands it could be dangerous. In the hands of terrorists it would be really dangerous. Credit bureaus already have half of that information. Phone companies and medical insurers have the other half. Credit bureaus, phone companies, medical insurers are not secure against cyber attacks. It is not beyond belief that terrorists could get at this information. Let us make sure that our government pulls out all the stops to keep us safe where it can, and that it not use the information for anything other than the prevention of terrorist attacks and the prosecution and punishment of those who scheme to commit them. At the same time the data must be better secured against those who would use it to do us harm, both common criminals and soldiers of Jihad Terror. The credit bureaus need to clean up their act. With Data Mining, the distinction to make is between proper and improper use, not whether to allow or forbid it.

Also we have to remember that we are in a war against Jihad terrorists. Wars are not run by courts and judges, lawyers and policemen, they are run by strategists, commanders and troops, with a civilian Commander in Chief. Note that judges do not have a slot in the command structure.

War is all Hell.

–William Tecumseh Sherman

Nobody likes war, least of all those who are caught by their foes. In a war against those who hide among civilians and refuse to wear uniforms mistakes will be made. It is not the fault of a civilized military if civilians who harbor terrorists, or who are used involuntarily as shields by terrorists, are mistakenly imprisoned or hurt. It is the fault of the terrorists. This is why nobody likes terrorists. They are dangerous to everybody, including their allies and supporters.

Good people sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.

–attributed to George Orwell, as seen on Mudville Gazette

The proper place for judicial oversight is after military targets have been identified by data mining and neutralized by military action, not before the data mining takes place.

This will not be pretty.

Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and defeat.

–William Tecumseh Sherman

The best that can be done is to sort through those who are captured or killed after action, sock the guilty away in a deep hole for a long time, and let the innocent go with our apologies and a commendation for putting up with it. The innocent dead are casualties of war and should be buried with honors as the tragic heroes of war they are. They are true martyrs, unlike those who strap nailbombs around their torso and blow themselves up in a disco.

It is, I think, true to say that the intelligentsia have been more wrong about the progress of the war than the common people, and that they were more swayed by partisan feelings. The average intellectual of the Left believed, for instance, that the war was lost in 1940, that the Germans were bound to overrun Egypt in 1942, that the Japanese would never be driven out of the lands they had conquered, and that the Anglo-American bombing offensive was making no impression on Germany. He could believe these things because his hatred for the British ruling class forbade him to admit that British plans could succeed. There is no limit to the follies that can be swallowed if one is under the influence of feelings of this kind. I have heard it confidently stated, for instance, that American troops had been bought to Europe not to fight the Germans but to crush an English revolution. One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.

–George Orwell, Notes on Nationalism (1945)

What George Orwell described in World War II also happened in Vietnam, and it’s happening again.

Summing Up

Just like real mining, data mining is perilous. Real mining needs to be done with care, but we don’t let the dangers stop mining completely. There is a reason to be careful about how the information from data mining is used in the prosecution of this war, not a reason to stop data mining as we prosecute this war.

Or we could just give up and let the Jihadists conquer us for Islam. I’m sure that women won’t mind going back to being the chattel of men again. That prospect is a little too Slave Girl of Gor for me, but it might be to your taste.

Update 1: submitted to Mudville Gazette

Update 2: Technorati Tags
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