Feds Still Shrugging People Onto Terrorist Watchlists Based On Hunches

from the you-might-be-a-terrorist-IF...-we-decide-you-might-be-a-terrorist-WHEN dept

The US government’s desire to keep terrorists off airplanes has resulted in heavily-populated “watchlists” — lists short on due process and long on hunches.

The TSA, in particular, has embraced a mixture of borrowed ideas and junk science to staff airports with Behavioral Detection Officers, who attempt to keep terrorists from boarding planes by looking for any number of vague indicators. The end result is a billion-dollar program with the accuracy of a coin flip.

That’s the physical version of the government’s “predictive policing” security efforts. The same sort of vague quasi-science is used to populate its “no fly” list.

The U.S. government’s reliance on “predictive judgments” to deprive Americans of their constitutionally protected liberties is no fiction. It’s now central to the government’s defense of its no-fly list—a secretive watch list that bans people from flying to or from the United States or over American airspace—in a challenge brought by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Court filings show that the government is trying to predict whether people who have never been charged, let alone convicted, of any violent crime might nevertheless commit a violent terrorist act. Because the government predicts that our clients—all innocent U.S. citizens—might engage in violence at some unknown point in the future, it has grounded them indefinitely.

The court itself found the “no fly” list’s redress processes (or lack thereof) to be unconstitutional, as it was basically unchallengeable by listed travelers. (And the only sure way for a person to discover they were on the “no fly” list was to buy a ticket to somewhere and attempt to board a plane.) According to the court, the list and its lack of proper redress was a perfect storm of civil liberties violations.

In summary, on this record the Court concludes the DHS TRIP process presently carries with it a high risk of erroneous deprivation in light of the low evidentiary standard required for placement on the No-Fly List together with the lack of a meaningful opportunity for individuals on the No-Fly List to provide exculpatory evidence in an effort to be taken off of the List.

While the DHS has slightly improved its redress process for those who find themselves on the list, it hasn’t made any changes to its dubious selection standards. In fact, it’s made this part of the process worse.

[T]he U.S. government launched its predictive judgment model without offering any evidence whatsoever about its accuracy, any scientific basis or methodology that might justify it, or the extent to which it results in errors.

In our case, we turned to two independent experts to evaluate the government’s predictive method: Marc Sageman, a former longtime intelligence community professional and forensic psychologist with expertise in terrorism research, and James Austin, an expert in risk assessment in the criminal justice system. Neither found any indication that the government’s predictive model even tries to use basic scientific methods to make and test its predictions.

As Sageman says, despite years of research, no one inside or outside the government has devised a model that can predict with any reliability if a person will commit an act of terrorism.

And there go any redress improvements. To get off the list, a person must convince the government he or she won’t commit a criminal act that its “predictive model” has determined they might. At least in the FBI’s terrorist “investigations,” there’s a minimum of intent and activity. In the case of would-be travelers like the ACLU’s clients, there’s nothing more than a predictive model spitting out probabilities.

In all likelihood, the predictive model used by the US government is based on more than faulty science. It’s also based on faulty reasoning. As Doug Saunders at the Globe and Mail points out, analysts researching tracking and surveillance of would-be terrorists are finding the usual presumptions are mostly wrong.

Analysts began looking at the work of Paul Gill, a criminologist at the University College of London. In a highly influential 2014 paper titled “Bombing Alone: Tracing the Motivations and Antecedent Behaviours of Lone-Actor Terrorists,” Dr. Gill and his colleagues analyzed known terrorists not by what they thought or where they came from, but by what they did.

In the weeks before an attack, terrorists tend to change address (one in five) or adopt a new religion (40 per cent of Islamic terrorists and many right-wing terrorists did so). And they start talking about violence: 82 per cent told others about their grievance; almost seven in 10 told friends or family that they “intended to hurt others.”

A huge proportion had recently become unemployed, experienced a heightened level of stress or had family breakdowns. And most had done things that looked like planning – including contacting known violent groups.

Predictive modeling often looks like “thought policing,” but that is of little use, apparently. There are other indicators that are far more telling, but these factors aren’t being given proper weight by the models in use. Saunders notes that there has been a shift in modeling over the past couple of years, thanks to research from analysts like Paul Gill, but that shift in predictive factors hasn’t slowed legislators from demanding even more futile, invasive “thought policing.”

Unfortunately, governments, including Canada’s, are behind the curve: Just as their terrorism experts and security employees have abandoned policies which resemble the policing of thoughts, they’re passing disturbing laws to make such obsolete practices easier.

The DHS may be using smarter modeling now, but it’s not as though it’s been examining its existing list to remove those who don’t match the vague criteria. Instead, it’s only responding to challenges made by travelers who find themselves on the list, and even then, it may still withhold information a listed flyer could use to challenge their status if the agency deems the release of such info a threat to national security. The nod to due process leads to an exchange of information and paperwork with the government, but there’s nothing adversarial about the redress procedure. It’s your word against theirs, with the agency — not a court — making the final determination as to whether a person can ever board an airplane.

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Comments on “Feds Still Shrugging People Onto Terrorist Watchlists Based On Hunches”

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tqk (profile) says:

Insanity personified.

To get off the list, a person must convince the government he or she won’t commit a criminal act that its “predictive model” has determined they might.

What kind of thickheaded tool politician signs off on laws that allow something like that to become possible, and how can it have taken 15 years (and counting) to realize it makes no sense whatsoever, doesn’t help them either find or stop terrorists, and has needlessly turned over a quarter of a million people into pariahs in limboland? Just imagine the ongoing cost in dollars and time to make this happen, and this is in effect throughout the world’s air travel system! Only a few months ago a woman managed to win her case forcing them to back off and fix the system. So, why haven’t they backed off and fixed the system?!?

Yet, this is the same country that tries to convince the world of its high moral standards and that it’s the world’s beacon of freedom. Those in control of this situation should be charged under the espionage act. They’re enabling bad guys far more than any whistleblower ever has by stuffing up the works the authorities use to protect its citizens. I’ll be surprised if they ever catch one again if this’s how they work. They’re making the world look like a nation of fools for being willing to tolerate ritual abuse for no discernable reason.

DigDug says:

Karma's a bitch right?

Imagine if you will, a world where the FBI is grooming a TSA agent for a terrorist plot so that they can publicly uncover it to give them something to crow about to Congress. Then add to that, an undercover DEA officer who is trying to get a TSA agent to smuggle some drugs out of the country. Finally, stir in an NSA agent trying to get a TSA agent to carry a fake bomb onto a plane to see how well their teammates respond. Finally, word is leaked overseas to CIA operatives about a huge drug and counterfeit money shipment being brought in from Iran that was stolen from CIA operatives in that region.

All of these plots just happen to converge on a single airport, for a single flight, which just happens to be a stage that Homeland Security has chosen to host an interview with Geraldo Rivera to explain the truth behind the “Security Theater” misconception that they claim is erroneously rampant within the U.S.

By the time all the guns have been drawn by all of the alphabet agency’s agents, and every alphabet organization has attempted arrested every other alphabet agency agents, hilarity will ensue and the world will know just how comical our nations security theater really is.

Personanongrata says:

Everyone is a Terrorist in DHS's Eyes: Radical or Sensible?

What should one expect from an entity (DHS) born of political expediency?

After all aren’t the “authorities” and “officials” at DHS in the process of refurbishing a dilapidated insane asylum at cost of billions of taxpayer dollars?

Planned Homeland Security headquarters, long delayed and over budget, now in doubt

By Jerry Markon May 20, 2014

The construction of a massive new headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security, billed as critical for national security and the revitalization of Southeast Washington, is running more than $1.5 billion over budget, is 11 years behind schedule and may never be completed, according to planning documents and federal officials.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the George W. Bush administration called for a new, centralized headquarters to strengthen the department’s ability to coordinate the fight against terrorism and respond to natural disasters. More than 50 historic buildings would be renovated and new ones erected on the grounds of St. Elizabeths, a onetime insane asylum with a panoramic view of the District.

These cretins at DHS are clearly incompetent and they should be pulled back from feeding at the public trough of taxpayer funded slop and dragged off into court to answer for the mal/mis/ and nonfeasance writ large throughout DHS’s entire criminal hierarchy.

The rubber stamp convention once known as the US Congress should have never have funded DHS. In a just world the rubber stamp convention would defund DHS.


John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Everyone is a Terrorist in DHS's Eyes: Radical or Sensible?

“is running more than $1.5 billion over budget, is 11 years behind schedule and may never be completed”


“new ones erected on the grounds of St. Elizabeths, a onetime insane asylum”

On the other hand, that is so poetic and appropriate that I almost wish it would happen.

Stephen says:

US is Terrorist Mecca

I see from the chart that that watchlist has over 600,000 people on it. Assuming those classifications to be mutually exclusive (ie someone in Hamas isn’t also a member of Al Qaeda in Iraq), who’d have thought the Land of the Free (TM) was swarming with so many would-be terrorists?

That said, given the precision of all the other numbers on that list (eg 73,189 for Al Qaeda in Iraq), versus the comparative non-precision for that “no recognised terrorist group affiliation” one (all those zeroes in “280,000”) suggests that the latter is more likely to be somebody’s guesstimate rather than a number plucked from an official list.

Anonymous Coward says:

Calling the process “predictive modelling” is a joke.

There is no mathematics. The leaks to The Intercept showed that it is just the random opinions of various government employees, made in secret, that determines who gets on. Maybe these are sometimes informed by the evidence-free opinions of self-proclaimed experts that are milking the terrorism farce in secret too. It is all just corruption. Nothing more.

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