To The NSA, A Reporter Covering Al Qaeda Looks Identical To An Al Qaeda Member

from the we-kill-based-on-metadata dept

On Friday, The Intercept released some new Snowden documents, showing how the NSA used metadata to claim that a well-known and well-respected Al Jazeera journalist, Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan, was a member of Al Qaeda.

This is all based on his phone metadata:

The document cites Zaidan as an example to demonstrate the powers of SKYNET, a program that analyzes location and communication data (or ?metadata?) from bulk call records in order to detect suspicious patterns.

Now, there are a few interesting things that come out of this. First, the NSA has phone metadata on phones in Pakistan. That’s found in the other released presentation on the NSA’s “SKYNET” (yes, SKYNET) program:

But, perhaps the much more interesting tidbit is that this detailed report showing why they think Zaidan is a key Al Qaida courier shows a huge problem with metadata. When you think about it, it really should not be at all surprising that a journalist who is one of the leading reporters covering Al Qaeda might have phone metadata similar to someone who is actually in Al Qaeda. It’s likely that he tries to contact them a lot and that he goes to where they are a lot. That’s called being a reporter. But, to the NSA, those sorts of distinctions don’t matter. Remember, former NSA boss Michael Hayden has outright admitted that “we kill people based on metadata.”

Metadata reveals an awful lot, but there may be alternative explanations for those patterns. But when you get so focused on the data itself, you fall into this trap of believing what the data suggests may be true, because it looks so analytical. The idea that it might be a “false positive” and that there might be an alternative explanation (i.e., a reporter covering Al Qaeda is likely to have similar metadata) doesn’t even seem to enter into the equation…

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Comments on “To The NSA, A Reporter Covering Al Qaeda Looks Identical To An Al Qaeda Member”

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39 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

This is why we CAN NOT, MUST NOT ever allow “autonomous killer robots”. Those robots will use exactly this data, but there will be even fewer humans in the middle to decide who gets to die than there are now. And because they will be so cheap in the future, they’ll have many more of them killing people randomly, just based on some flawed algorithms.

Relevant: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pMYYx_im5QI

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Can we stop for a moment and discuss 2 more things that might have helped ensure his classification as a terrorist?

– Reporter for a news source that does not always sugar coat or kowtow to the spin required by the powers that be here.
– He’s brown enough.

If he is daring enough to actually speak with the terrorists, he might dare to report on those things that “we” are doing that we call horrific when the other guy does it. That kind of coverage is seen as a very dangerous weapon, giving people the full picture of what really is happening. The fashionable line used to be “They hate us for our freedom”… now after the reporting on the “collateral damage” (read growing body count of innocent people who dared to just be living their lives, unaware they were in the kill range of a missile fired a world away) that line lost its shine.

If we just add a designator to him in the system, we can just use the flawed system to support the idea he is a terrorist and try to discount what he reports. Sadly not everyone in the public will question the assignment of the designator, and those in the government blindly accept it because to dare to question leads to labels of terrorist lover/sympathizer.

David says:

Oh come on

Al Qaeda, Al Jazeera, what’s the difference? Just kill all those brownskins and let Jesus and Muhammad sort them out over a beer. Wait, Muhammad is not permitted to drink beer, right? Wait, Jesus isn’t either, right? What business had he turning water to wine then?

Those stories don’t check out. Let’s just nuke all of the Near East.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: The program works as intended.

Not quite. The government loves terrorists, as they can trot them out to scare people into being compliant little sheep anytime someone questions them, or to ‘justify’ their latest power-grab.

Reporters on the other hand can be quite the thorn in the side of the government, should they not be good little government mouthpieces, and report what’s actually happening and being done, rather than what they are told to report.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: The program works as intended.

Reporters on the other hand can be quite the thorn in the side of the government, should they not be good little government mouthpieces, and report what’s actually happening and being done, …

At which time they’ll be stricken from the guest list. They’ve been trying to control reporters since they got away from them in Vietnam.

We had whistleblower laws passed to augment the press. Look where that got Sterling. The gov’t is out of control and your elected reps are covering for them.

Anonymous Coward says:

The question

Core problem – it has never been about stopping terrorism – it has always been about giving the appearance of stopping terrorism whilst avoiding offending Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Turkey, etc etc.

Pakistan of course can be offended a bit because they are further away – not in such a strategic place and don’t have any oil.

Iran and Iraq were also originally on the list of “do not offend” (in the days of the Shah and early Saddam) but for some inexplicable reason we managed to offend Iran whilst trying not to, then we decided to be offended ourselves by Iraq and now we can’t quite work out what to do about either.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: The question

Yeah, and then didn’t the US’ puppet Saddam Hussein attack the Ayatollah’s Iran? Chile only got Pinochet out of theirs.

This’s been going on for a long time. There’s whole continents on the list. The Europeans excelled at colonialism, but the US’s out to perfect it. They’ve the imperial disease, and are just like Rome and many other countries’ empires.

Watching US whine about Putin these days is comical.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Al-Jazeera, Al-Qaeda, Tomayto, Tomahto

“If their not Terrorists, why are there names so Terroristic-sounding?”

In case you’re serious (hard to tell these days):

Xenophobic idiots have conflated the Arabic language with terrorism, in the same way they assume that anyone looking Middle Eastern is a terrorist and that all Muslims are terrorists.

Intelligent people not only understand that “al” is essentially the Arabic version of “the” – rendering any automatic negative connotation laughable – but that it’s the root of a lot of common English words such as alcohol, algebra and alchemy (among hundreds of English words with origins in the Arabic language).

David says:

Re: Re: Al-Jazeera, Al-Qaeda, Tomayto, Tomahto

Intelligent people not only understand that “al” is essentially the Arabic version of “the” – rendering any automatic negative connotation laughable – but that it’s the root of a lot of common English words such as alcohol, algebra and alchemy (among hundreds of English words with origins in the Arabic language).

Well, alcohol was banned at some time, alchemy certainly is, and if you take a look at the average U.S. education, algebra certainly looks like being on a death list as well.

Not least of all, we avoided Algore by not being able to count. Certainly looks like we are on our way to get rid of all those Arabic Als. Now we just need to give Alobama back to the French and Alaska to the Russians. But only including Sarah P-al-in.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

… or be human beings and work out the story, the revelant treaties and what un security resolution process may be used to fix the situation…. There is a process that could probably be used to fix it if the person isn’t mailing bombs on planes or slaughtering the innocent like notable members of that organization.

justme says:

So with metadata. . .

Cops are often at the scene of the crime, so cops would look like criminals.
CIA and FBI agents would appear to be anti-government activists.

This could get confusing, just kill em all! They should know better then to doing something that make’s them look like criminals, so it’s there own fault!

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