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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  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 11 May 2015 @ 9:05am

    In another news: NSA declares everybody in Pakistan are terrorists because their metadata say they live in the same country as the terrorists.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    John Fenderson (profile), 11 May 2015 @ 9:31am

    Skynet & demonspit, huh?

    Apparently the NSA isn't even pretending that they aren't evil.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 12 May 2015 @ 4:14am

      Re: Skynet & demonspit, huh?

      Like their spy satellite with a "giant octopus giving the hug of love to planet earth"-logo

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward, 11 May 2015 @ 9:37am

    Imagine This

    See, the public's failure to understand our methodology is based in their lack of imagination. If one cannot imagine terrorists, then terrorist won't exist and we will lose our credibility. So...imagine up!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 May 2015 @ 9:45am

    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

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    TheResidentSkeptic (profile), 11 May 2015 @ 9:49am

    The algorithm won't be flawed.

    It will be an extension of the current mindset.

    Proletariat = enemy of the state

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Dan T., 11 May 2015 @ 10:09am

    Al Qaeda, Al Jazeera, Al Gore... all those Als are the same.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Just Another Anonymous Troll, 11 May 2015 @ 10:13am

    Can SKYNET also deploy hunter-killer drones? If it has those things Judgement Day can't be far off. SKYNET will decide that all humans are a threat to the State and nuke us all.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Agonistes, 11 May 2015 @ 10:26am

    Hmmm...

    You know, even though there is a massive amount of evidence that the NSA is a bunch of stand-up guys and really have our best interests at heart...I'm beginning to wonder if they might actually be tweaking the truth a bit.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    scotts13 (profile), 11 May 2015 @ 10:41am

    Or...

    Perhaps the message is that reporters should be staying away from terrorist organizations. Don't investigate them, don't report on the efforts against them - lest they be caught up in the net.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 11 May 2015 @ 10:47am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 May 2015 @ 11:12am

    Makes sense....

    I'm sure if we were to look at just the metadata of a drug abuse counselor, that he or she may appear as a drug kingpin?

    I'm willing to bet we could find all sorts of potential false-postives of every kind walking around out there...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ishould (profile), 11 May 2015 @ 11:48am

    They aren't even trying to look innocent anymore. They're named after a program that enslaves the world.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    David, 11 May 2015 @ 11:56am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 May 2015 @ 12:05pm

    The program works as intended.

    After all, reporters can be just as dangerous to the government as terrorists.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 11 May 2015 @ 4:19pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        tqk (profile), 11 May 2015 @ 5:48pm

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      JMT (profile), 11 May 2015 @ 6:24pm

      Re: The program works as intended.

      No, they're more dangerous. It's unlikely terrorists will ever bring the government down. A reporter on the other hand...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Blackfiredragon13 (profile), 11 May 2015 @ 12:41pm

    Sigh

    Is anyone else bothered by the program's name? Because it might just be me being superstitious but you don't name something programs SKYNET Of all things.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 May 2015 @ 12:52pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 11 May 2015 @ 2:08pm

      Re: The question

      "managed to offend Iran whilst trying not to"

      ...WTF are you talking about? You might want to take a look at the googles for what happened in Iran around, oh, say, 1979... Maybe use the keyword "Shah"...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 11 May 2015 @ 4:14pm

        Re: Re: The question

        This is what I meant:

        We backed the Shah (trying to keep Iran in our camp) and then found he got toppled and the new regime was offended by our previous support for the Shah.

        I was around in 1979 and know perfectly well what happened!

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          tqk (profile), 11 May 2015 @ 5:41pm

          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.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 11 May 2015 @ 4:58pm

      Re: The question

      You are an idiot. If you're a US citizen I'm ashamed of you.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Mr Big Content, 11 May 2015 @ 3:34pm

    Al-Jazeera, Al-Qaeda, Tomayto, Tomahto

    If their not Terrorists, why are there names so Terroristic-sounding? PROVE to me its just a coincidence!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 11 May 2015 @ 11:41pm

      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).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        David, 13 May 2015 @ 7:05am

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Padpaw (profile), 11 May 2015 @ 4:55pm

    captain America the winter soldier comes to mind every time I read about the drone use only being used against the "bad people".

    The question that should be asked is who is defining who the bad people are. Much like the film, evil groups would decide anyone that could be a threat to their illegal actions could be designated a future target.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 May 2015 @ 5:00pm

    I don't know if he's committed specific acts of terrorism but I'd call the US embassy if he needs to get help.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 11 May 2015 @ 11:51pm

      Re:

      ... so they can pinpoint his location better for a drone strike?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 12 May 2015 @ 12:49pm

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    justme, 11 May 2015 @ 6:34pm

    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!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That Anonymous Coward (profile), 12 May 2015 @ 12:21am

      Re: So with metadata. . .

      "CIA and FBI agents would appear to be anti-government activists."

      Well they do things that go against the law using secret rules, courts, and workarounds... it might be more than appears.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 12 May 2015 @ 4:20am

      Re: So with metadata. . .

      This could get confusing, just kill em all!


      I strongly suspect that's what SKYNET is for.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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