I’ve often written about the base rate fallacy and how it makes tests for rare events — like airplane terrorists — useless because the false positives vastly outnumber the real positives. This essay uses that argument to demonstrate why the TSA’s FAST program is useless:
First, predictive software of this kind is undermined by a simple statistical problem known as the false-positive paradox. Any system designed to spot terrorists before they commit an act of terrorism is, necessarily, looking for a needle in a haystack. As the adage would suggest, it turns out that this is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Here is why: let’s assume for a moment that 1 in 1,000,000 people is a terrorist about to commit a crime. Terrorists are actually probably much much more rare, or we would have a whole lot more acts of terrorism, given the daily throughput of the global transportation system. Now lets imagine the FAST algorithm correctly classifies 99.99 percent of observations — an incredibly high rate of accuracy for any big data-based predictive model. Even with this unbelievable level of accuracy, the system would still falsely accuse 99 people of being terrorists for every one terrorist it finds. Given that none of these people would have actually committed a terrorist act yet distinguishing the innocent false positives from the guilty might be a non-trivial, and invasive task.
Of course FAST has nowhere near a 99.99 percent accuracy rate. I imagine much of the work being done here is classified, but a writeup in Nature reported that the first round of field tests had a 70 percent accuracy rate. From the available material it is difficult to determine exactly what this number means. There are a couple of ways to interpret this, since both the write-up and the DHS documentation (all pdfs) are unclear. This might mean that the current iteration of FAST correctly classifies 70 percent of people it observes — which would produce false positives at an abysmal rate, given the rarity of terrorists in the population. The other way of interpreting this reported result is that FAST will call a terrorist a terrorist 70 percent of the time. This second option tells us nothing about the rate of false positives, but it would likely be quite high. In either case, it is likely that the false-positive paradox would be in full force for FAST, ensuring that any real terrorists identified are lost in a sea of falsely accused innocents.
It’s that final sentence in the first quoted paragraph that really points to how bad this idea is. If FAST determines you are guilty of a crime you have not yet committed, how do you exonerate yourself?