Homeland defense: A modest proposal

Former intelligence analyst David Holtzman says advanced technology is readily available to build a far-reaching Predictive Data Security System. So why don't we just build it?

6 min read

"The threat of terrorism is an inescapable reality of life in the 21st century. It is a permanent condition to which America and the entire world must adjust. The need for homeland security, therefore, is not tied to any specific terrorist threat."

--"Securing the Homeland, Strengthening the Nation" presidential report

Many people say the intelligence agencies should have known about Sept. 11 before it happened.

Some go further and contend the intelligence bureaucracy should always know in advance when something is going to happen. Analysts call this predictive capability an "Indications and Warning" system, although no one has ever come close to building anything this broad in scope.

Some might also say that's a laughable idea. But as a former intelligence analyst and information retrieval expert, I thought it might be interesting to spec one out for you. You never know until you try, right?

Connect existing government and commercial databases.
Let's start by connecting most of the large government databases that contain information on domestic activity, including those containing customs, immigration, law enforcement, military and Internal Revenue Service files. The network would eventually include state and local tax rolls, political contribution lists, and educational and voting records.

In the short term, the government would build software that translates queries between the various databases (since its current information systems are the digital version of the Tower of Babel). A permanent solution would be to create rigid requirements forcing all agencies and contractors to converge around a common set of standards for data storage and access.

Contractors would eventually write translation gateways into many commercial databases so that searches against the government database could be seamlessly integrated. Some of these commercial databases would be straightforward, containing data such as credit reports, phone and other utility bills, and transportation/reservation information from airlines, rental car companies and hotels. Others might be more subjective and involve human appraisals such as profiled direct-marketing lists, school guidance counselor records and comments made by utility or government workers.

Match them to commercial information such as credit reports (using social security numbers).
Initially, translation systems would be "data-matched" against government records. The government would eventually mandate that all commercial databases include a field for social security numbers. This would likely result in legislation making it a crime for consumers to give false social security numbers to companies. It might even require these companies to deny service to the curmudgeons who still refused to provide that information.

This system would eventually access tens of millions of real-time sensors for up-to-the-minute threat assessment.
Add tens of millions of cameras and other sensors.
This system would eventually access tens of millions of real-time sensors for up-to-the-minute threat assessment. This process of adding sensors is already underway at several different agencies. These sensors include visual cameras at various public places, such as storefronts, street corners, highways, toll roads and airports. Some already rely on experimental face-recognition software. Other sensors would include identification devices at checkpoints in public buildings and eventually in all transportation terminals.

Require national ID cards and tie them to a biometric database.
These devices would require some sort of universal identification card that carries biometric information. The biometrics could include fingerprints, retinal scans, face measurements, blood types and DNA. (The military is already collecting DNA information to facilitate body identification.) Of course, this would require a national ID card and, even more importantly, a universal database of biometric information; otherwise it would be useless. The easiest way to build up this database is to collect the information from schoolchildren. An alternative method would be to link the biometric collection to draft registration for citizens and to visa issuance for resident aliens.

Track phone calls and e-mail, and generate diagrams of social groupings using traffic analysis.
An important element of a predictive system would be the gathering of information on social interactions and on "networks" of individuals who communicate as a group. Intelligence analysts refer to this process as "traffic analysis." Expansion of the Carnivore/DCS-1000 program to encompass most Internet-based communications, used together with records of phone transactions, should provide enough information.

Naturally, detailed analysis will also require the content of the conversations. Since the system will have to reconstruct activity after the fact, this implies that all communication from all Internet users will have to be stored.

Build technology that will "guess" what people are thinking and predict what they might do.
Since terrorism is ideologically based, anyone is a potential terrorist. Under this proposed system, then, everyone's actions would have to be under constant scrutiny. But the biggest problem with large-scale information systems is figuring out what's important in the data that's being stored.

Since terrorism is ideologically based, anyone is a potential terrorist.
Since this is a threat-assessment system, it would deploy a so-called heuristic processing, or rules-based analysis, similar to what's used by credit scoring systems to determine consumer creditworthiness. But the terrorist-profiling system would have much more sophisticated and insightful rules, crafted by psychologists, and would have much more data to work with. It would look for ideological leanings, as demonstrated by choice of reading material, organization memberships and friends, or psychological disturbances, as evidenced by behavioral changes such as a sudden switch in grocery-buying habits.

Researchers would be free to experiment with many types of correlations of individual behavior--such as dietary habits, travel behavior and social grouping--to determine the best way to assess the threat-potential of everyone, Americans and aliens alike.

Give everyone a secret threat score or loyalty rating.
Since millions of government workers need access to these threat profiles--and most will not be trained in the nuances of interpreting psychological information--threat scores similar to credit scores are the most useful way to display the results of these profiles. In this way, any government employee with access to the system could look up a person's threat score based on their social security number, driver's license or immigration visa number.

In the screensaver, looking out at the fish...
People may get used to the cameras, but threat profiling will cause them to make lifestyle adjustments. We've become accustomed to the idea that our credit report can affect our chances of getting a job, renting an apartment or buying a car. The threat score would serve the same function in all of our interactions with government employees.

As this Predictive Data Security System threat profiling develops, people will quickly find out what kind of behavior will draw attention and what's safe. They might avoid certain books and take extra-special care to find out the background and opinions of their friends, colleagues and employees.

If a person unfortunately gets a high threat score--perhaps because of something that one of their friends or family said--they might reduce that score through some socially useful action such as providing information on one of their neighbors.

My modest proposal
Satire--the aim of this article--helps force people to examine the implications of their positions. Polarized posturing often leads to highly hairy outcomes, and nothing causes fuzz to sprout like some good old incomprehensible technology.

The big question is, how much surveillance do we need to accomplish the goal of reasonable protection? Extreme solutions don't solve problems better--they just introduce new pain. Al-Qaida will eventually be wiped out, but the bureaucrat at the Department of Motor Vehicles and his buddies will be sniggering over your sexual proclivities for years.


That's right. And if you think that we're going to build and then throw away an information system this complex and expensive, I have some old voting machines in Florida to sell you.