Dotty Security Arguments

May 6, 2013

Bruce Schneier has an excellent opinion piece over at CNN, in which he discusses the criticism directed at security and intelligence agencies for not discovering and stopping the Boston Marathon bombing.  The litany of complaint is familiar enough:

The FBI and the CIA are being criticized for not keeping better track of Tamerlan Tsarnaev in the months before the Boston Marathon bombings. How could they have ignored such a dangerous person? How do we reform the intelligence community to ensure this kind of failure doesn’t happen again?

Just as after the atrocities of 9/11, the agencies are being criticized for failing to “connect the dots” and uncover the plot.

Now, there have been specific incidents in connection with terrorism that one might think would raise some suspicions (for example, the 9/11 hijackers who took flying lessons but didn’t want to learn how land the plane).  But for the most part, as Schneier points out, “connecting the dots” is a bad and misleading metaphor.

Connecting the dots in a coloring book is easy and fun. They’re right there on the page, and they’re all numbered. … It’s so simple that 5-year-olds can do it.

After an incident has occurred, we can look back through the history of the people and things involved, and attempt to piece together a pattern.  But that is possible only because we know what happened.  Before the fact, real life does not number the dots or even necessarily make them visible.  The problem, generally, is not that we have insufficient information.  It’s that we don’t now which tiny fraction of the information that we do have is relevant, and not just noise.

In hindsight, we know who the bad guys are. Before the fact, there are an enormous number of potential bad guys.

I heard a news report a few days ago saying that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder of the two brothers, had taken part in a monitored telephone call in which the term ‘jihad’ was mentioned.  Lumping together telephone calls (including those by reporters, of course), radio and TV broadcasts, and other forms of electronic communication, how many times per day would you guess that word might be mentioned?

As Schneier goes on to point out, this is an example of a psychological trait called hindsight bias, first explained by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky,

Since what actually happened is so obvious once it happens, we overestimate how obvious it was before it happened.

We actually misremember what we once thought, believing that we knew all along that what happened would happen.

Telling stories is one of the primary ways that people attempt to make sense of the world around them.  The stories we construct tend to be a good deal tidier and more logical than the real world.  There is a strong tendency to adjust the “facts” to fit the story, rather than the other way around.  (This is one reason that science is hard.)

You can observe this tendency regularly in reporting on financial markets.  For example, whatever the stock market did yesterday — go up or down, a little or a lot — you can be sure that some pundits will have an eminently plausible explanation for why that happened.  You are very unlikely to hear anything like, “Well, the S&P 500 went down 500 points, and we don’t have a clue why it happened.”  (I have been saying for years that I will start paying attention to these stories when they are published before the fact.)

It is certainly sensible, after any incident, to look back to see if clues were missed, and to attempt to learn from any mistakes.  But it is neither sensible nor realistic to expect prevention of any and all criminal or terrorist activity.

Update Tuesday, May 7, 17:05 EDT

Schneier’s essay has now also been posted at his Schneier on Security blog.


Boston Bombings, Take 2

April 17, 2013

As the investigation into Monday’s bombings at the Boston Marathon continued, today was a day with more wildly conflicting news stories.  Early this afternoon, there were reports, notably by the Boston Globe, CNN, and the Associated Press, that a suspect had been arrested (or was in custody — I heard both expressions used).  At the same time, the TV network news from ABC and NBC was reporting that there had been no arrest.  Some of the reports said that the suspect would be taken to the US Federal Court House in Boston, resulting in a large influx of reporters and the curious.   This was probably not a big help when, as The Washington Post reported, the courthouse had to be evacuated because of a bomb scare:

Boston’s federal courthouse, where hundreds had gathered in response to false reports of an arrest, was briefly evacuated because of a bomb threat.

It seems that the networks got it right: the FBI issued a press release stating that no arrest had been made.  It also made a request to media organizations:

Over the past day and a half, there have been a number of press reports based on information from unofficial sources that has been inaccurate. Since these stories often have unintended consequences, we ask the media, particularly at this early stage of the investigation, to exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting.

Didn’t they mention anything about this sort of thing in journalism school?

There were other reports that were merely silly.  One TV report showed an image of investigators searching the crime scene along Boylston Street in what it described as “white HazMat suits”.  The white fabric garments were obviously not HazMat suits; they were very probably coveralls worn by crime scene investigators so that fibers, hair, and so on from the investigators do not contaminate any evidence.  Does the mistake matter?  Maybe not, but it might spark a rumor that there was some sort of toxic or infectious residue left by the explosions.

Perhaps to compensate for some of its earlier (excessive) enthusiasm, the Associated Press (via Yahoo! News) has a new report on the media frenzy.


Boston Marathon Bombings

April 16, 2013

I’m sure that I’m like most other Americans in reacting with a mixture of sorrow, disgust, and anger to the horrible bomb attacks in Boston yesterday.   Of course, we all extend our sympathies, thoughts, and prayers to the victims and their families, too.  The story of what happened is still unfolding: physical and other evidence is still being analyzed, and no one, so far, has claimed responsibility for this crime.  I think it is not only foolish, but also counter-productive, to jump to conclusions based on incomplete facts or speculation.  I expect this will be the first in a number of posts on this incident.

I was able to keep current with the press coverage of the story through most of yesterday afternoon.  (The incident probably struck home for me a bit more than average, since I lived in Boston for about ten years, within a few blocks of Copley Square, and worked nearby as well.)  When the prospect of an inch or two of snow gets reporters hyper-ventilating, I guess it is not too surprising that this incident really got them going.  It was clear that someone in the newsroom was trying to rein in the more extreme speculation, but some fairly obvious products of someone’s imagination made it through anyway.

One early report showed a very jerky video of one of the explosions (it later became clear it was the first), with breathless commentary about “an enormous bomb”.  Now, “enormous” is one of those words that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, allows a considerable return in speculation for a trifling investment of fact.  I am certainly not an explosives expert, but I have seen the immediate aftermath of a couple of large explosions in similar environments.  For example, I was perhaps half a mile away in the City of London when the Provisional IRA detonated a bomb at the Baltic Exchange in St Mary Axe on April 10, 1992.  That was a large bomb,  estimated to contain 45 kg (100 lb.) of Semtex, plus about a ton of fertilizer based explosive.  I have never seen so much broken glass in my life; it was impossible to walk without stepping on it.

In that early video, there was no noticeable glass on the pavement, and there were a couple of large plate glass windows visible, intact, within a few yards of the explosion site.  I remarked at the time that the bomb, if that’s what it was, could not have been very big — probably something in a backpack or briefcase.  (I do have a little background knowledge on this point.  As part of my job, I had some security responsibilities for our operations in the City, and got periodic briefings from the security services.)  That the devices were small, perhaps 2-3 pounds of explosive, seems to be the current consensus from authorities today.

The Associated Press [AP] initially made a rather strange report yesterday afternoon, saying that cellular telephone service was being shut down.

A law enforcement official, citing an intelligence briefing, said cellphone service had been shut down Monday in the Boston area to prevent any potential remote detonations of explosives.

The TV reporter presenting this suggested that this was being done to prevent further bombs from being detonated by cellphones, and that, for the same reason, people should not use their landline phones, either.  Now this last bit is just complete nonsense; my avoiding use of my phone does not prevent a Bad Guy from using his; in fact, if anything, his call will be completed more expeditiously.  AP later retracted the story, having checked with the cellular carriers.  I suspect the original story was based on a garbled request to avoid unnecessary phone usage; it is almost a given that networks will be stressed by heavy usage following any sort of man-made or natural disaster.

I know that the media have a difficult job, and that trying to piece together a narrative from fragments of information is especially tricky.  I’d hope, though, that everyone, reporters and audience alike, would try to maintain a rational view of the situation, and not let their emotions run amok.  Terrorism is, after all, a tactic that is intended to produce fear, fear out of proportion to the actual damage done.  As I’ve written before, we need to take care not to let terrorists win “on the cheap”.

Over at The Atlantic‘s site, Bruce Schneier has a revised version of an earlier essay, focusing on this same point.

As the details about the bombings in Boston unfold, it’d be easy to be scared. It’d be easy to feel powerless and demand that our elected leaders do something — anything — to keep us safe.

It’d be easy, but it’d be wrong.  We need to be angry and empathize with the victims without being scared.

He also has an interview with Ezra Klein of The Washington Post on the paper’s “WonkBlog”.

Contrary to what our instincts and emotions may be screaming, terrorism is a rare event, and mounting a successful terrorist attack is not easy.  Evil geniuses, like Professor Moriarty or the Joker, are denizens of fiction, not reality.  And, no matter how draconian our security response is, there is no way to guarantee perfect safety.  We need to remain as level-headed as we can.

Refuse to be terrorized.


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