Since 9/11, we've heard countless "experts" tell us that the key to stopping terror attacks in to collect more data. The latest example: Las Vegas hoteliers turning over to the feds the names of 260,000 people staying under their roofs.In today's Salon, Beyond Fear author Bruce Schneier says the approach is all wrong.
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...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.