Homeland Insecurity

The fact that U.S. intelligence agencies can't tell terrorists from children on passenger jets does little to inspire confidence.

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Salon
  • January 9, 2004

Security can fail in two different ways. It can fail to work in the presence of an attack: a burglar alarm that a burglar successfully defeats. But security can also fail to work correctly when there’s no attack: a burglar alarm that goes off even if no one is there.

Citing “very credible” intelligence regarding terrorism threats, U.S. intelligence canceled 15 international flights in the last couple of weeks, diverted at least one more flight to Canada, and had F-16s shadow others as they approached their final destinations.

These seem to have been a bunch of false alarms. Sometimes it was a case of mistaken identity. For example, one of the “terrorists” on an Air France flight was a child whose name matched that of a terrorist leader; another was a Welsh insurance agent. Sometimes it was a case of assuming too much; British Airways Flight 223 was detained once and canceled twice, on three consecutive days, presumably because that flight number turned up on some communications intercept somewhere. In response to the public embarrassment from these false alarms, the government is slowly leaking information about a particular person who didn’t show up for his flight, and two non-Arab-looking men who may or may not have had bombs. But these seem more like efforts to save face than the very credible evidence that the government promised.

Security involves a tradeoff: a balance of the costs and benefits. It’s clear that canceling all flights, now and forever, would eliminate the threat from air travel. But no one would ever suggest that, because the tradeoff is just too onerous. Canceling a few flights here and there seems like a good tradeoff because the results of missing a real threat are so severe. But repeatedly sounding false alarms entails security problems, too. False alarms are expensive—in money, time, and the privacy of the passengers affected—and they demonstrate that the “credible threats” aren’t credible at all. Like the boy who cried wolf, everyone from airport security officials to foreign governments will stop taking these warnings seriously. We’re relying on our allies to secure international flights; demonstrating that we can’t tell terrorists from children isn’t the way to inspire confidence.

Intelligence is a difficult problem. You start with a mass of raw data: people in flight schools, secret meetings in foreign countries, tips from foreign governments, immigration records, apartment rental agreements, phone logs and credit card statements. Understanding these data, drawing the right conclusions—that’s intelligence. It’s easy in hindsight but very difficult before the fact, since most data is irrelevant and most leads are false. The crucial bits of data are just random clues among thousands of other random clues, almost all of which turn out to be false or misleading or irrelevant.

In the months and years after 9/11, the U.S. government has tried to address the problem by demanding (and largely receiving) more data. Over the New Year’s weekend, for example, federal agents collected the names of 260,000 people staying in Las Vegas hotels. This broad vacuuming of data is expensive, and completely misses the point. The problem isn’t obtaining data, it’s deciding which data is worth analyzing and then interpreting it. So much data is collected that intelligence organizations can’t possibly analyze it all. Deciding what to look at can be an impossible task, so substantial amounts of good intelligence go unread and unanalyzed. Data collection is easy; analysis is difficult.

Many think the analysis problem can be solved by throwing more computers at it, but that’s not the case. Computers are dumb. They can find obvious patterns, but they won’t be able to find the next terrorist attack. Al-Qaida is smart, and excels in doing the unexpected. Osama bin Laden and his troops are going to make mistakes, but to a computer, their “suspicious” behavior isn’t going to be any different than the suspicious behavior of millions of honest people. Finding the real plot among all the false leads requires human intelligence.

More raw data can even be counterproductive. With more data, you have the same number of “needles” and a much larger “haystack” to find them in. In the 1980s and before, East German police collected an enormous amount of data on 4 million East Germans, roughly a quarter of their population. Yet even they did not foresee the peaceful overthrow of the Communist government; they invested too heavily in data collection while neglecting data interpretation.

In early December, the European Union agreed to turn over detailed passenger data to the U.S. In the few weeks that the U.S. has had this data, we’ve seen 15 flight cancellations. We’ve seen investigative resources chasing false alarms generated by computer, instead of looking for real connections that may uncover the next terrorist plot. We may have more data, but we arguably have a worse security system.

This isn’t to say that intelligence is useless. It’s probably the best weapon we have in our attempts to thwart global terrorism, but it’s a weapon we need to learn to wield properly. The 9/11 terrorists left a huge trail of clues as they planned their attack, and so, presumably, are the terrorist plotters of today. Our failure to prevent 9/11 was a failure of analysis, a human failure. And if we fail to prevent the next terrorist attack, it will also be a human failure.

Relying on computers to sift through enormous amounts of data, and investigators to act on every alarm the computers sound, is a bad security tradeoff. It’s going to cause an endless stream of false alarms, cost millions of dollars, unduly scare people, trample on individual rights and inure people to the real threats. Good intelligence involves finding meaning among enormous reams of irrelevant data, then organizing all those disparate pieces of information into coherent predictions about what will happen next. It requires smart people who can see connections, and access to information from many different branches of government. It can’t be seen by the various individual pieces of bureaucracy; the whole picture is larger than any of them.

These airline disruptions highlight a serious problem with U.S. intelligence. There’s too much bureaucracy and not enough coordination. There’s too much reliance on computers and automation. There’s plenty of raw material, but not enough thoughtfulness. These problems are not new; they’re historically what’s been wrong with U.S. intelligence. These airline disruptions make us look like a bunch of incompetents who cry wolf at the slightest provocation.

Categories: Airline Travel, Terrorism

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.