Sunday, April 21, 2013

Tools, People, and Knots of Incompetency (Elaborating on Lauren Weinstein's points)


I'm going to start this with a disclaimer. I am employed by a firm that provides a number of forensic and biometric identification technologies - not only automated fingerprint identification systems, but other technologies such as facial recognition. I'll also note that the views that I'm expressing in this post are my own views and not necessarily the views of my employer or of any organizations with which I am associated.

With that out of the way...

While I have certainly commented on the events of the past week in various online forums, I have not specifically blogged about either Massachusetts (or Texas) until now. Instead, I have chosen to blog on less deadly topics, such as vibrating underwear that can be controlled via smartphones, museum pieces, and restaurants that play music. (Incidentally, I still have to write the follow-up to that post; suffice it to say that I had to go to two separate locations on the night of the webinar itself.)

But now that Tamerlan Tsarnaev is dead and Dzhokar Tsarnaev is in custody, people are taking a breath and looking back at the ramifications of the events of the past week. One such person is Lauren Weinstein, who, after writing a number of things on Google+, has taken the time to write a more analytical blog post entitled The Boston Bombings, Knee-Jerks, Arthur C. Clarke, and CISPA.

Now I am not going to write about the Boston Bombings, Knee-Jerks, Arthur C. Clarke, or CISPA. Instead, I am going to confine myself to responding to two specific things that Weinstein wrote about.

The first of these is Weinstein's statement about the proper use of some specific technologies that I know a bit about. Weinstein:

[W]e also already see these same elected officials now scrambling to jump on the knee-jerk technological surveillance bandwagon, even if a week ago they were taking an essentially contrary stand.

Technological realities are generally not germane to their analytical viewpoints.

We know a lot about domestic video surveillance now, and the overwhelming bulk of evidence suggests that it is relatively useless in stopping terrorist attacks (or even much ordinary crime) and is mainly of use to track down culprits after the damage is already done -- if then.

This proved true even in the case of the Boston bombings, the locale of which must have represented one of the densest concentrations of video and still photography in a single location in history. And even there, despite what you might have heard, highly touted tech such as facial recognition systems apparently played virtually no role at all. The reality is that these systems are only useful under very narrowly defined conditions, the breathless pronouncements of their vested supporters notwithstanding.

Technological tools are just that - tools. I have talked about tools repeatedly on this blog over the years. An automated fingerprint identification system, or a facial recognition system, or any type of video surveillance system, is in the end just a tool that is employed by people. And even as these tools improve over the years - perhaps to a point where the "narrowly defined conditions" are less narrowly defined - they will still be just tools that are employed by people.

So even if (for whatever reason) Tamerlan Tsarnaev were put into a watchlist because of the 2011 FBI investigation, and even if "on the fly" facial recognition systems were able to detect his presence at the Boston Marathon, that data would need to be reviewed by a human being before it could be converted to actionable information - much less knowledge or wisdom.

Which brings us to one of Weinstein's other points. I'm going to quote an extensive portion of Weinstein's essay, but then I'm going to focus on three words within it.

Since the capture of the teenage bombing suspect now in hospital -- a naturalized U.S. citizen, by the way -- we've already seen the specter of GOP senators expressing their disdain for the U.S. justice system, demanding that he be declared an "enemy combatant." This despite the fact that based on what we know right now, there is no legal justification for such a determination, and in fact the enemy combatant system -- which could have been better run by "The Three Stooges" -- is tied up in knots of incompetency which make the worst problems in the conventional justice system look trivial by comparison.

As you can probably guess by the title of this post, I'm going to focus on the words "knots of incompetency" - not in relation to the enemy combatant system [1:30 PM - SEE BELOW], but in relation to government - and business, and life - in general.

There are many people, some who are avowed "conspiracy theorists" and some who are not, who believe that systems and organizations work in tandem. After the bombing, according to these people, the FBI should have immediately found the information on Tamerlan Tsarnaev in its files, and immediately shared this with the Massachusetts State Police and all of the local police departments. This information could then be immediately cross-referenced, and they could have gone to the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, nabbed Dzhokhar Tsarnaev there while he was on campus, and prevented the additional killing that took place on Thursday.

Yeah, right. We have the benefit of hindsight, but when the Boston Marathon bombing originally occurred, authorities were investigating an entirely different type of suspect:

Federal investigators are looking into possible connections between today's bomb attack on the Boston Marathon and the Patriot's Day anniversaries of the Branch Davidian compound seige in Waco, Texas, and the Oklahoma City bombing, a Justice Department source tells MailOnline.

Today's attack took place on Patriots' Day, which marks the first battle of the Revolutionary War and the 'shot heard 'round the world.' It is a day held in reverence by right-wing domestic groups and others who oppose the federal government.

Now I'll grant that Islamists were also suspected - in this country, Islamists are ALWAYS suspected, even when American Idol voting results are disappointing - but the vision of "the government" nabbing the Tsarnaev brothers within hours is highly unlikely - even if the Tsarnaev brothers could have miraculously been connected to the bombing in those early hours. There is no guarantee that an FBI analyst in Washington could set the forces in motion to immediately dispatch a local police officer to U Mass Dartmouth. As I've said before:

[W]e don't need to worry about the U.S. Federal Government agencies working together to take away our freedoms, because the U.S. Federal Government agencies all hate each other. People from Department X think that people in Department Y are all bozos, and they're not going to share information with those bozos in Department Y because (a) they're all bozos and they'll probably lose the information, and (b) if they don't lose the information, they'll probably claim the credit that should rightfully go to Department X.

The absolute lack of cooperation, even between people in the same department, hits us every day.

So, in summary: we cannot expect technological gizmos to do miraculous things, because those gizmos have to be used by people. And we can't expect a bunch of people from different government agencies (or companies) to work together in tandem, because each agency - and each person - has individual self-interests.

[ADDED 1:30 PM]

Lauren Weinstein has offered the following comment in this thread. I'm reproducing it here just to ensure that Weinstein's original intent is clear.

Just for the record, my knots of incompetency wording in my piece was specifically directed at the system in place (i.e., at Gitmo) to deal with "enemy combatants" -- as opposed to the mainline DOJ track. I believe it's hard to argue that the former is anything but in incompetent disarray. I did not address in this piece (one way or the other) the issue of coordination and/or cooperation between different government agencies or divisions.
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