Somebody’s Watching Me?
Does The Department Of Homeland Security Really Reduce Risk?
by Michael Maynard
January 14, 2014

In order to protect the country against another terrorist attack, what amount of surveillance is needed and necessary?

Usually I’m a pretty careful driver. But I did get a moving violation last year for making an illegal turn, and I deserved it. I was late for a meeting in Boston. I was speeding along the Massachusetts Turnpike and needed to make a turn onto a Boston waterfront exit.

I missed the exit and had to loop back around. I drove back again going even faster.

I missed the exit again. The problem was this was the only exit on the left side of the Mass Pike and I kept getting caught in the right or middle lanes.

I looped back around again. I missed the exit again.

Totally frustrated, I made an illegal turn cutting through the meridian to get to the other side of road. There were no cops around, so I figured I was in the clear. I wasn’t.

There were no police officers around, but there were cameras watching the traffic. The cameras caught me on making the illegal turn. I got the summons with a $50 fine. I broke the law. I paid the fine.

Over the next 3 months, I got two more tickets from the New Hampshire State Police. There was a problem. I was never in New Hampshire during those three months. The cameras on the New Hampshire Turnpike caught a car with a similar, but slightly different license plate number. My license number was a combination of 6 letters and numbers with an O. The car which was speeding in New Hampshire had a similar combination with a 0 (zero) instead of the O. I had been driving a 1996 Toyota RAV4 at that time. The car in the pictures clearly was not a Toyota RAV4.

Here’s my problem – if the State of New Hampshire can read my license plate and send me the ticket to my home address, then it could have also checked the Massachusetts Registry information where they retrieved my personal information to determine whether I owned was the type of car shown in their pictures. But the State of New Hampshire did not.

I have no problem with state and local police using cameras to patrol their major roadways. They are a cost efficient use of resources to monitor traffic problems. I have no problem with using public databases to obtain reference information. What I have a problem with is the lack of oversight of what was done. Apparently, no human being reviewed the photos or checked the registry information before the tickets were sent out.

If I know where and why I’m being watched. I have no problem with that at all. When I stop at a stoplight, I know I’m being watched. When I try on pants in the haberdashery’s dressing room, I know I’m being watched. When I walk through the aisles at the supermarket, I know I’m being watched. I know they aren’t looking for or specifically at me. They are looking for those who will break the law. To not catch those who break the law ultimately indirectly adds to my prices. Most of the time, the police or store security staff are looking for specific incidents of lawbreaking, not being voyeurs. But where and when am I being watched that I do not know about?

I do have a problem  if the use of technology is applied and used incorrectly, ineffectively, indiscriminately, and, especially, in an unneeded surreptitious way. What New Hampshire did to use technology to monitor traffic was used correctly, but applied ineffectively. It cost the state more to send out the tickets to the wrong party and then pay its employees to deal with my phone call and correcting the errors than it would to have done this process correctly.. All they had to do is have someone check the driver’s registration information against the image captured of the car. If you’re going to watch, then also stop and look.

The use of surveillance systems is about minimizing risk and being able to respond accordingly, rapidly and accurately to incidents, like my breaking the law. I was lucky. I didn’t cause an accident. I took a risk and paid the price for doing so.

Much of applied use of surveillance technology is done in the world of statistical risk analysis. I’m a statistics geek so I have some theoretical understanding about  how the use of probability is essential to the application of surveillance systems. This use can be summarized by understanding Type I and Type II errors. A Type I error occurs when you believe something to be false when it is actually true. A Type II error occurs when you believe something to be true when it is actually false. The State of New Hampshire committed an avoidable Type II error.

“Type I errors are equivalent to false positives. Let’s go back to the example of a drug being used to treat a disease. If we reject the null hypothesis in this situation, then our claim is that the drug does in fact have some effect on a disease. But if the null hypothesis is true, then in reality the drug does not combat the disease at all. The drug is falsely claimed to have a positive effect on a disease.

Type II errors are equivalent to false negatives. If we think back again to the scenario in which we are testing a drug, what would a type II error look like? A type II error would occur if we accepted that the drug had no effect on a disease, but in reality it did.”

The world of national security is all about risk analysis. In this clandestine world, a Type I error is always preferable to a Type II error, because when a Type II error occurs, people die. The events of 9/11/2001 greatly shook up an already concerned State Department, FBI, CIA, Department of Defense and National Security Agency. Their belief in “no terrorist attacks can occur within USA borders” turned out to be a Type II error. The Bush Administration did try to minimize the further risk of terrorist attack proposed and had passed legislation that greatly expanded the scope of how surveillance technology is used for national security through The Patriot Act. Somehow, they determined United States needed another national security surveillance agency, in addition to all activities already performed by the State Department, FBI, CIA, Department of Defense and National Security Agency. Would and could making the existing national security surveillance systems and agencies work more effectively and efficiently be a better solution? That discussion and debate did not occur.

In the “UNITING AND STRENGTHENING AMERICA BY PROVIDING APPROPRIATE TOOLS REQUIRED TO INTERCEPT AND OBSTRUCT TERRORISM (USA PATRIOT ACT) ACT OF 2001“, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created. This was a typical federal government panicked overreaction to unplanned events – create a new commission and/or agency. And like most new government programs, the program never gets reduced, it always gets expanded. In this case, that expansion collides directly with our constitutional First Amendment rights.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) now has 240,000+ employees and a $60 billion annual budget. It has been described as “another Pentagon”. The DHS is responsible for you having to take shoes off at the airport,  in response to Richard Reid’s attempted plane bombing. You cannot bring shampoo bottles of more than 3 ounces onto a plane. Why 3 ounces and not 4 ounces or 6 ounces? These seemingly futile, but highly irritating measures are just more Type I – Type II risk analysis issues. Do these restrictions really prevent terrorist activities?

The range of activities that the Department of Homeland Security performs is widespread.
The vision of homeland security is to ensure a homeland that is safe, secure, and resilient against terrorism and other hazards.
Three key concepts form the foundation of our national homeland security strategy designed to achieve this vision:

Security,
Resilience, and
Customs and Exchange. ….

There are five homeland security missions:

Prevent terrorism and enhancing security;
Secure and manage our borders;
Enforce and administer our immigration laws;
Safeguard and secure cyberspace;
Ensure resilience to disasters….

One of the most important security measures at an airport is confirming the identity of travelers. This is done by checking a photo ID, such as a driver’s license. If you are traveling internationally, you need to present your passport.

Simply taking a look at a photo ID isn’t enough, however. The high-tech buzzword in airport security today is biometrics. Biometrics essentially means checking fingerprints, retinal scans, and facial patterns using complex computer systems to determine if someone is who they say they are – or if they match a list of people the government has determined might be potential terrorists.

A new system called CAPPS II could help accomplish some of this. Short for Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, CAPPS II will require more personal information from travelers when they book their flights, which will lead to a risk assessment of no risk, unknown risk, elevated risk, or high risk. Passengers considered risky will be further screened. Although the system has been delayed and isn’t in place yet, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) predicts that CAPPS II will make check-in faster for the average traveler.

Will the CAPPS II program identify and stop a potential Mohammad Atta and his terrorist crew this time? We don’t know.

But what this program means is that the DHS is gathering more personal data and analyzing the data by the latest in information and surveillance technology to avoid Type II errors, preventing risks like the New York World Trade Center attack from happening again. In addition to the creation of the personally intrusive and invasive DHS,  another Bush Administration’s decision to minimize risk was to allow the National Security Agency (NSA) to perform covert electronic surveillance activities within the United States and on US citizens, without legal approval.

The USA PATRIOT ACT was passed within 1 ½ months of the vents of 9/11/2001. The bill was rushed through Congress by the Bush Administration with little time for debate. The vote was 98 to 1 in the Senate, with only Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin dissenting. The House vote was 280 to 138 with 124 Democrats, 13 Republicans and 1 Independent voting against it.
Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold stated at the time:

“We all also had our own initial reactions, and my first and most powerful emotion was a solemn resolve to stop these terrorists. And that remains my principal reaction to these events. But I also quickly realized that two cautions were necessary, and I raised them on the Senate floor the day after the attacks.

The first caution was that we must continue to respect our Constitution and protect our civil liberties in the wake of the attacks. As the chairman of the Constitution Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, I recognize that this is a different world with different technologies, different issues, and different threats. Yet we must examine every item that is proposed in response to these events to be sure we are not rewarding these terrorists and weakening ourselves by giving up the cherished freedoms that they seek to destroy.

The second caution I issued was a warning against the mistreatment of Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, South Asians, or others in this country. Already, one day after the attacks, we were hearing news reports that misguided anger against people of these backgrounds had led to harassment, violence, and even death.

I suppose I was reacting instinctively to the unfolding events in the spirit of the Irish statesman John Philpot Curran, who said: “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.”

Senator Russ Feingold’s 2001 Speech Against The Patriot Act

The rush to pass the Patriot Act meant there was little time for a grieving and scared nation to have an in-depth discussion about the goals and objectives for a national security policy. What is too much government surveillance? Could 9/11/2001 have been prevented? What changes are needed that do not infringe upon individual rights to privacy and secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, as written in the Fourth Amendment? There was no risk analysis performed.

The Patriot Act was followed up by the Protect America Act of 2007.

“Notwithstanding any other law, the Director of National Intelligence and the Attorney General, may for periods of up to one year authorize the acquisition of foreign intelligence information concerning persons reasonably believed to be outside the United States if the Director of National Intelligence and the Attorney General determine, based on the information provided to them.”

Senator Feingold voted against this legislation, too.

In 2007, in addition to the Patriot Act and the Protect American Act, the Bush Administration, in secret, authorized the expansion of the Patriot Act to include direct listening in on phone calls and other communications activities.

Months after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying, according to government officials.

Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the intelligence agency has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible “dirty numbers” linked to Al Qaeda, the officials said. The agency, they said, still seeks warrants to monitor entirely domestic communications.

The previously undisclosed decision to permit some eavesdropping inside the country without court approval was a major shift in American intelligence-gathering practices, particularly for the National Security Agency, whose mission is to spy on communications abroad. As a result, some officials familiar with the continuing operation have questioned whether the surveillance has stretched, if not crossed, constitutional limits on legal searches.

“This is really a sea change,” said a former senior official who specializes in national security law. “It’s almost a mainstay of this country that the N.S.A. only does foreign searches.”

That national discussion and debate about how much national security surveillance is wanted and needed to reduce the risk of terrorist attach still has not occurred. With the recent disclosures about the National Security Agency and the scope of its activities,  that discussion and debate needs to occur. With the advances in information and surveillance technologies since the passage of the Patriot Act that discussion and debate must occur now. The other risk, the need for 100% national security risk stopping, overwhelming the need for individual freedoms, can result in a tyrannical police state. There are too many historical examples of what tyrannical police states do.

How much surveillance is too much surveillance? When technological decision making, without human supervision, is performed, Type I national security errors will occur because of the inherent limitations on judgement and reasoning.  Only using human  national security information intelligence gathering will never eliminate Type I errors, because there is too much data to be 100% accurate. But would human intelligence without using technology stop Type II errors?  What legal combination of technological and human resources, what levels of expenditure, to achieve various levels of national security risk is acceptable? That discussion needs to happen.

Senator Russ Feingold was considered radical and “unpatriotic” in his opposition to the Patriot Act and its extensions. What the citizens of the US should do thank him for his real patriotism, protecting our First Amendment rights to still speak openly and freely and to redress grievances.

Is somebody watching me? Yes. Should they? Does it really make me safer? Or would not having this level of surveillance be a Type II error?

We will discuss this in greater depth in upcoming articles.

Columnist/Journalist/Writer/Book Editor Co-Founder/CEO of Azimuth Partners, high tech consulting firm for 30+ years. Former columnist for the Washington Post/Newsweek syndicate.

2 Comment on “Somebody’s Watching Me?

  1. Pingback: Against The Gods – Against The Odds | MICHAEL MAYNARD

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