Tag: suspicion

‘Destroy America’ = Suspicion Fail

News that incautious comments on “tweeter” got British tourists excluded from the United States had Twitter alight yesterday. (Paperwork given to one of the two, on display in this news story, refers to the popular social networking site as a “Tweeter website account,” betraying some ignorance of what Twitter is.)

It’s a good chance to review how suspicion is properly—and, here, improperly—generated.

The Department of Homeland Security has been vague as yet about what actually happened. It may have been some kind of “social media analysis” like this that turned up “suspicious” Tweets leading to the exclusion, though the betting is running toward a suspicious-activity tipline. (What “turned up” the Tweets doesn’t affect my analysis here.) The boastful young Britons Tweeted about going to “destroy America” on the trip—destroy alcoholic beverages in America was almost certainly the import of that line—and dig up the grave of Marilyn Monroe.

Profoundly stilted literalism took this to be threatening language. And a failure of even brief investigation prevented DHS officials from discovering the absurdity of that literalism. It would be impossible to “dig up” Marilyn Monroe’s body, which is in a crypt at Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles.

I testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2007 about how one might mine data for terrorists and terrorism planning, in terms that apply equally well to Twitter banter and to any criminality or wrongdoing. For valid suspicion to arise, the information collected must satisfy two criteria:

(1) It is consistent with bad behavior, such as terrorism planning or crime; and (2) it is inconsistent with innocent behavior. In … the classic Fourth Amendment case, Terry v. Ohio, …  a police officer saw Terry walking past a store multiple times, looking in furtively. This was (1) consistent with criminal planning (“casing” the store for robbery), and (2) inconsistent with innocent behavior — it didn’t look like shopping, curiosity, or unrequited love of a store clerk. The officer’s “hunch” in Terry can be described as a successful use of pattern analysis before the age of databases.

Similarly, using the phrase “destroy America” is consistent with planning to destroy America. (You want to be literal? Let’s be literal!) But it’s also consistent with talking smack, which is innocent behavior. These Tweets fail the second criterion for generating suspicion.

Twitter is nothing if not an unreliable source of people’s thinking and intentions. It’s a hotbed of irony, humor, and inside jokes. Witness this Tweet of mine from yesterday, which failed to garner the social media guffaw I sought (which is why I link to it here). Things said on Twitter will almost never be suspicious enough to justify even the briefest interrogation.

Other facts could combine with Twitter commentary to create a suspicious circumstance on extremely rare occasions, but for proper suspicion to arise, the Tweet or Tweets and all other facts must be consistent with criminal planning and inconsistent with lawful behavior. No information so far available suggests that the DHS did anything other than take Tweets literally in the face of plausible explanations by their authors that they were using hyperbole and irony. This is simple investigative incompetence.

If indeed it is a “social media analysis” program that produced this incident, the U.S. government is paying money to cause U.S. government officials to waste their time on making the United States an unattractive place to visit. That’s a cost-trifecta in the face of essentially zero prospect for any security benefit. I slept no more soundly last night knowing that some Brits were denied a chance to paint the town red in L.A.

In case it needs explaining, “paint the town red” is archaic slang. It does not imply an intention or plan to apply pigments to any building or infrastructure in Los Angeles, whether by brush, roller, or spray can.

9/11: All the PSA We Needed

Right on the heels of my post the other day discussing the error in inviting terrorism reporting, here’s another video (and suspicious-activity-reporting Web site) produced by the Los Angeles Police Department.

The production values in this video are hipper, and L.A. appears to have its share of actors willing to look concerned about terrorism. But really, the attacks of September 11, 2001 were all the Public Service Announcement we needed to encourage reporting of genuine suspicions.

Asking amateurs for tips about terrorism will have many wasteful and harmful results, like racial and ethnic discrimination, angry neighbors turning each other in, and—given the rarity of terrorism—lots and lots of folks just plain getting it wrong. People with expertise—even in very limited domains—can discover suspicious circumstances in their worlds almost automatically when they find things “hinky.”

My impressions of the LAPD were formed up in the late 80’s and early 90’s when I lived in southern California. To encourage reporting, what that department needs most is to make the community confident of its own fairness and competence. Reporting of meritorious suspicions will naturally follow that. There’s no need for it to artificially gin up crime or terrorism reporting.

Good Athelete, Not a Good Terrorist Hunter

The leading theory about this video is that John Elway would say anything for a buck. That’s fine for him to do, of course. But the producers of the video below inadvertently illustrate the difficulty of generating suspicion about terrorists (or any other thing) artificially.

The video goes through eight signs of terrorism, on which they say “experts agree.” They are signs of terrorism, in a sense, but they are signs of lots of other things too. If Coloradans contacted authorities as instructed in the video, they would inundate law enforcement with false reports, possibly obscuring truly suspicious information. I wrote about properly generated suspicion and my testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee touching on these issues a couple of years ago.

Asking amateurs for tips about suspicious behavior will have many wasteful and harmful results, like racial and ethnic discrimination, angry neighbors turning each other in, and lots and lots of folks just plain getting it wrong. But people with expertise—even in very limited domains—can discover suspicious circumstances, almost automatically, when they find things “hinky.”

Given the rarity of terrorists and terrorism planning in this country, hunting terrorists using the list of “signs” in this video would cause people to be wrong about 100% of the time. Americans have much of the knowledge and all the incentive they need to report truly suspicious activity without videos encouraging them to see terrorism in every shadow.