July 10, 2006

Schneier on Security.

For a while I have been hearing about “security guru” Schneier explaining how the government surveillance programs are useless and wrong and so on. It surprised me a lot - not because I expected something different from Schneier - I did not. It surprised me because I knew that he was a cryptography and computer security guru. A techie guy. Someone like an expert locksmith - you would want to consult him on how good your lock is, but not on how to investigate a burglary. It does not necessarily mean that what he says is wrong. A smart locksmith may very well be capable of figuring out “who done it” better then a dumb detective. However, when we talk about the NSA surveillance programs, to describe Mr. Schneier as some generic “security guru” without an explanation - is misleading and dishonest - it creates an impression that he has certain credentials that do not exist in reality. It is especially bad when he does this himself:
When people want to know how security really works, they turn to Schneier... His current book, Beyond Fear, tackles the problems of security from the small to the large: personal safety, crime, corporate security, national security.
Annoying - was what I thought before I read this article on Mr. Schneier's web site. Now I think that the problem is not merely in how he is introduced.

Let's review the article. In fact, the article itself is written by a Norwegian Professor Floyd Rudmin, but Mr. Schneider prefaces it saying that it is a “more formal explanation” of why “NSA-style wholesale surveillance data-mining systems are useless for finding terrorists”. So, I guess, it represents his own thoughts too. A little bit strange that an expert in security had to use help from a professor of Social & Community Psychology to do his Bayesian formulas, but well – who cares? Let's read.
Suppose that there are 1,000 terrorists there as well, which is probably a high estimate. The base-rate would be 1 terrorist per 300,000 people. In percentages, that is .00033%, which is way less than 1%. Suppose that NSA surveillance has an accuracy rate of .40, which means that 40% of real terrorists in the USA will be identified by NSA's monitoring of everyone's email and phone calls. This is probably a high estimate, considering that terrorists are doing their best to avoid detection. There is no evidence thus far that NSA has been so successful at finding terrorists. And suppose NSA's misidentification rate is .0001, which means that .01% of innocent people will be misidentified as terrorists, at least until they are investigated, detained and interrogated. Note that .01% of the US population is 30,000 people. With these suppositions, then the probability that people are terrorists given that NSA's system of surveillance identifies them as terrorists is only p=0.0132, which is near zero, very far from one. Ergo, NSA's surveillance system is useless for finding terrorists.
Allow me to repeat his departing point: imagine that we have 300,000,000 suspects and know that only 1000 of them are terrorists. We have a tool that would select 30,000 suspects and there would be 400 terrorists among them. Think about it for a second. Imagine a police captain who walks into a room for a briefing and says - "Hey, boys, the witnesses saw a suspect leave in a blue sedan; let's check all the blue sedan owners in the area!" What do you think? Is this a useful idea? You bet you ass it is. No need to take Criminalistics 101 to know that - any TV police drama would supply you with this bit of education - NYPD Blue, Miami Vice, Law and Order - take your pick. This is what police officers do. Routinely, every day - they pick a clue and do the leg work, checking everyone who fits the profile – “an owner of a blue sedan”, “a tall guy in a yellow shirt”, “a senior from the Lincoln high-school”, or something else. And imagine - not all blue sedan owners are criminals. Yes, there is a hundred of them in the vicinity, but we still take this description and run with it. You know why? Because it is easier to check only one hundred blue sedan owners, then just everyone. It is not uselss. It is not “mathematically impossible”. It is not “McCarthyism”. It is a routine police work. And I can not believe that this has to be explained!

It is really a no-brainer. You have three hundred millions suspects, you can filter them down to thirty thousands and still have a lot of fish in the net - yeah, let's do it. By all means. We need to start somewhere, and it seems like a solid beginning. One may be annoyed that it is not a perfect answer, but to say that it is useless - is just plain dumb. No other word for it.

July 04, 2006

230 And Counting

We had no intention to synch the first post in this blog with any special date. This just happened. However, we intend to take advantage of it to make clear what our political philosophy is. Oh, do not judge our English too harshly – it is not our mother tongue :-).

Signing of The Declaration of Independence 230 years ago was not a capricious act. Founding Fathers were not trying to spite British Monarch, nor were they looking for an easy solution to their problems. They lived in safety and prospered much more then people of the British Isles. Yet, safety and prosperity was not what it was about. They were taking this step as a last resort – for the sake of the principles they deemed more important then their existing allegiances, their lives and their fortunes. Founding Fathers were acting in a way that should make no sense to the people who nowadays call themselves “liberal” and who would gladly trade all their liberties for a guaranteed prescription plan.

Making a drastic step like that required an explanation.
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
To explain they needed to start with the basic principles and beliefs that defined what government is, and what makes a government legitimate. They did it in a most clear way.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed
This set of axioms is an antithesis to the liberal point of view that is built on quite opposite assumptions – that our rights exist not due to some higher power endowing us – but only because other people agreed to respect them. That those rights are very alienable – as they have to be if they are derived from the consent of whoever is in charge of the Government. That those rights are secondary and subservient to The Greater Goal – which is... which is whatever the Party says it is. That the task of a Government is to reach that Goal. That if any man’s rights conflict with that – the Government has a “compelling interest” in revoking those rights and liberties.

All the differences, all the disagreements between the left and the right, or between the Republicans and the Democrats, or between... whomever – all the political arguments in the end boil down to one single question – is the Government our employee, our bodyguard whose only legitimate job is to protect our rights; or is it our master who should regulate us and shape us into some “great society”. This is why the Declaration of Independence is so important – it is the answer of the people who founded this country. You may disagree with the philosophy of the Founding Fathers, but then you can not honestly claim that your views are American, for their philosophy was the only excuse and justification for the very act of creation of this country. This is the philosophy that they tried later to implement in the constitutions of the States and the Constitution of the Union.

Neither can there be any compromise. One can not find a compromise between being a citizen and being a subject. You can not find a balance between being limited only by the need to respect the rights of other people and being limited by their opinion. Many a times we have heard from our liberal opponents that “freedom is when you can do everything that is allowed”. No, it is not. When you can do only the things that are allowed – it is not freedom. It is freedom’s opposite. It is exactly what the people of the British colonies in America had before 1776. It is what they found impossible to live with, however safe and profitable it was.

And so it began. And a long war followed. The war with no plan and no exit strategy. The war that saw deaths of the great many Americans, mass desertions, reluctant recruits, big losses and few victories, tactical mistakes at every point, poorly equipped and barely trained army under the command of one of the most incompetent generals in American history, whose only war plan was “to stay the course”. Sounds familiar? Well, it should be. That war was exactly like the Iraq War looks to most liberals now – except that than all of it was 100% true. Ah, and the other difference – anti-war people never called themselves “American patriots” than, but “Crown loyalists”. And they definitely did not celebrate the 4th of July. It was a time when people were honest, see.

So, happy birthday, America. We are glad to be here.