Gas Week

EWN Publishing

Aviation data-matching to “identify terrorists” at 99.9% accuracy, creates 431,000 innocent people – a year – with damaged chances of jobs grant, or visa

Posted by gasweek on 9 October, 2007

Are you on a secret black list? Those caught up in terrorist-profiling systems are not allowed to know their scores or challenge the data. Yet their profiles, which may be shared with federal, state and even foreign governments, could damage their chances of getting a state job, a student grant, a public contract or a visa. It could even prevent them from ever being able to fly again. Damage to individuals, and no way to complain: Such mistakes were rife, as the unmistakable Senator “Ted” Kennedy found to his cost. In the space of a single month in 2004, he was prevented five times from getting on a flight because the name “T Kennedy” had been used by a suspected terrorist on a secret “no-fly” list.

How to make a secret black list: Two days after the attacks on New York and Washington, Frank Asher, a drug dealer turned technology entrepreneur, decided to examine the data amassed on 450m people by his private data-service company, Seisint, to see if he could identify possible terrorists. After giving each person a risk score based on name, religion, travel history, reading preferences and so on Asher came up with a list of 1,200 “suspicious” individuals, which he handed to the FBI. Unknown to him, five of the terrorist hijackers were on his listl reported The Economist, September 2007

Spooks adored it: The FBI was impressed. Rebranded the Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange, or Matrix, Asher’s programme, now taken over by the FBI, “could soon access 20 billion pieces of information, all of them churned and sorted and analysed to predict who might one day turn into a terrorist. A new version, called the System to Assess Risk, or STAR, has just been launched using information drawn from both private and public databases”.

Public data the start point: As most of the data had already been disclosed to third parties—airline tickets, job records, car rentals and the like—they are not covered by the American constitution’s Fourth Amendment, so no court warrant wasrequired, such profiling had become a favourite tool.

“incredibly inaccurate” But although it can predict the behaviour of large groups, this technique is “incredibly inaccurate” when it comes to individuals, says Simon Wessely, a professor of psychiatry at King’s College London. Bruce Schneier, an American security guru, agreed. Mining vast amounts of data for well-established behaviour patterns, such as credit-card fraud, works very well, But it was “extraordinarily unreliable” when sniffing out terrorist plots, which were uncommon and rarely had a well-defined profile.

Reason not to fly American: By way of example, Mr Schneier points to the Automated Targeting System, operated by the American Customs and Border Protection, assigned a terrorist risk-assessment score to anyone entering or leaving the United States. Assuming an unrealistically accurate model able to identify terrorists (and innocent people) with 99.9% accuracy, that meant some 431,000 false alarms annually, all of which presumably needed checking. Given the unreliability of passenger data, the real number was likely to be far higher, he says.

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