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Do the Math: Rooting Out Terrorists Is Tricky Business

January 19, 2003|John Allen Paulos | John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University and adjunct professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author of "Innumeracy" and the forthcoming "A Mathematician Plays the Market."

PHILADELPHIA — Let's start with a basic question: What is the purpose of the battle against terrorism? One answer, perhaps reflecting how most Americans see things, is that we want to feel safe. As philosopher Thomas Hobbes knew, what people want most from the state is protection, not freedom. To this end, and since terrorists appear relatively invulnerable to the usual deterrents, it follows that we would ideally intercept them before they carry out their attacks.

This is part of what is fueling policies like the incarcerations at Guantanamo, the massive sweeps by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the registration programs we've seen since Sept. 11 and, more ominously, the Pentagon's proposed techno-surveillance system, Total Information Awareness (TIA). Headed by retired Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter of Iran-Contra notoriety, TIA will cost, by some estimates, upward of $200 million over three years. Initial funding of $10 million will help set up a system to "detect, classify, ID, track [and] preempt" future terrorists -- pre-perpetrators, if you will -- whom Poindexter hopes to spot before they do harm.

Using supercomputers, sophisticated software and data-mining techniques common in marketing, the TIA will maintain records on Americans' credit card purchases, plane flights, e-mails, prescriptions, book purchases, housing, legal proceedings, driver's licenses, rental permits and more, all in the hope of detecting suspicious patterns of activity -- buying certain chemicals, say, or renting crop-dusting planes.

Upon detecting these supposedly telltale patterns, law enforcement would hope to stop pre-perpetrators before they commit crimes. It's a worthy goal, but in pursuing it the government will collect, integrate and evaluate extensive personal data on all of us, greatly compromising our privacy and perhaps even our political liberty. Is it worth the cost to society?

Let's consider a mathematical approach to that question, one that derives from probability theory and the obvious fact that the vast majority of people of every ethnicity are not terrorists.

For the sake of argument, let's assume that eventually some system of information gathering and interpretation becomes so uncannily accurate that when it examines a future terrorist (someone with terrorist intentions), 99% of the time it will correctly identify him as a pre-perpetrator. Furthermore, when this system examines somebody who is harmless, 99% of the time the system will correctly identify him as harmless. In short, it makes a mistake only once every 100 times.

Now let's say that law enforcement apprehends a person using this technology. Given these assumptions, one might guess that the person would almost certainly be a terrorist. Right? Well, no. Even with the system's amazing data-mining powers, there would be only a tiny chance that the apprehended person would have gone on to commit a terrorist act if he had not been caught.

To see why this is so and to make the calculations easy, let's postulate a population of 300 million people of whom 1,000 are future terrorists. The system will correctly identify, we're assuming, 99% of these 1,000 people as future terrorists. Thus, since 99% of 1,000 is 990, the system will apprehend 990 future terrorists. Great.

But wait. There are, by assumption, 299,999,000 nonterrorists in our population, and the system will be right about 99% of them as well. Another way of saying this is that it will be wrong about 1% of these people. Since 1% of 299,999,000 equals 2,999,990, the system will swoop down on these 2,999,990 innocent people as well as on the 990 guilty ones, apprehending them all.

That is, the system will arrest almost 3 million innocent people, about 3,000 times the number of guilty ones. And that occurs, remember, only because we're assuming the system has these amazing powers of discernment. If its powers are anything like our present miserable predictive capacities, an even greater percentage of those arrested will be innocent.

Of course, this is an imagined scenario, and the numbers, percentages and assumptions are open to serious question. Nevertheless, the fact remains that since almost all people are innocent, the overwhelming majority of the people rounded up using any set of reasonable criteria will be innocent. And even though the system proposes only increased scrutiny rather than arrest of suspected future terrorists, such scrutiny might very well lead over time to a voluminously detailed government dossier on each of us. At the same time, since scrutiny without interdiction is unlikely to stop future terrorists from carrying out an attack, the system is likely to lead to little, if any, increase in security.

We want to feel safe as we go about our daily lives, but I submit that the proposed Total Information Awareness program is not conducive to a feeling of safety, much less to a feeling of freedom. Let's fight terrorism without ditching our commitment to privacy rights.

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