Tuesday, July 14, 2009

This Will Fix Everything

NPR has an interesting article about data mining software and it's use to spot terrorists.
Intelligence officials have been hoping for some time that vacuuming up vast amounts of information and putting it into a computer would uncover some sort of discernable terrorist pattern. The technique, known as data mining, is controversial because information on the innocent, as well as potential terrorists, ends up in the same database. Now it is increasingly unclear whether data mining will ever really work because terrorists don't appear to have predictive patterns.

"We don't even have enough of a data set to get a good pattern of 'What does a terrorist look like?' " says Fred Cate of Indiana University's Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research. "And terrorists, of course, are constantly changing their patterns because, quite simply, they don't want to get caught."

That's why they use one-time cell phone numbers and drop-box addresses.

"There had been, over the past seven years, this sense that if you collect more and more data and put it into a powerful enough computer, shake it and bake it the right way you'll come up with the unknowns" — terrorists who aren't yet on law enforcement's radar screens — says Jim Dempsey, the executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a privacy group in San Francisco.

"I think, and other people who are more technically adept than I think, that's really a fool's errand." Source: NPR

As I listened to the two part story, yesterday and this morning I thought about the tendency in law enforcement to pin their hopes on some technical solution to identifying catching criminals. In my 18+ years in law enforcement I've seen a lot of things come and go. While software tools can help you catch bad guys, nothing replaces human intuition and analysis. There are way too many variables to come up with a formula that works even most of the time, much less all the time. I'm sure there will be those that keep trying though.

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