Simple Math Defeats NSA

The simple math problem that blows apart the NSA’s surveillance justifications by Ryan Cooper.

From the post:

Here’s a question about death and probability, done first by Cory Doctorow. Suppose one out of every million people is a terrorist (if anything, an overestimate), and you’ve got a machine that can determine whether someone is a terrorist with 99.9 percent accuracy. You’ve used the machine on your buddy Jeff Smith, and it gives a positive result. What are the odds Jeff is a terrorist?

Try to figure it out, or at least guess, before you read on.

Similar conclusion to Begging National Security Questions #1 where out of 10,295,642,951 airline passengers screened from 2002 – 2015, the TSA has yet to catch a single terrorist. Not one.

Perhaps critics (I’m one) of the NSA are asking the wrong questions.

Surely NSA staff mathematicians know the problems both formal and practical with the surveillance activities at the NSA. Even the political appointees at DHS have noticed a drought of ten years without a single terrorist. Their competitors at the FBI coerce the mentally ill into terrorist suspects.

What if the debate over the justifications for surveillance is a distraction? While we sally back and forth over statistics, methodologies, legal issues, etc., the real drivers for the activity are elsewhere?

Since the NSA budget is top-secret, let’s look at the Department of Homeland Security budget, from 2002 to 2015. I used the budget-in-brief documents from DHS Budget. (I didn’t see any machine readable files. Let me know if there are other sources with machine readable files. Thanks!)

Total DHS Budgets by Year:

2002 $20 billion
2003 $38 billion
2004 $36 billion
2005 $40 billion
2006 $41 billion
2007 $43 billion
2008 $46 billion
2009 $51 billion
2010 $55 billion
2011 $56 billion
2012 $57 billion
2013 $59 billion
2014 $60 billion
2015 $61 billion
2016 $65 billion
Total $628 billion

The self-professed justification of the DHS can be found in the first paragraph if its Budget-in-Brief for 2016:

The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) ultimate mission is to secure the Nation from the many threats we face. This requires the dedication of nearly a quarter million employees with responsibilities that range from facilitating the efficient flow of commerce; preventing terrorism; protecting our national leaders; securing and managing the border; enforcing and administering immigration laws; and preparing for and responding to disasters. Our duties are wide-ranging, but our goal is quite clear—keep America safe.

It is an article of faith, dogma, inerrant truth, at least for the DHS that America faces many threats. No amount of evidence can shake their faith in that proposition.

Why not take a non-refutation approach? Just bypass the bass intoning of “America faces many threats,” and jump to what is being done to respond to those threats?

I hate conceding factual falsehoods but more effective engagement on budget waste may (no guarantees) lead to less surveillance and more useful spending of federal funds.

First, we need an image that captures the essence of the DHS budget. Here is my suggestion:


Second, focus on the cookie part of the imagery. What cookies did your locality get last year from the DHS? Those cookies have more to do with the distribution of money than any attempt to “…keep American safe.” And no doubt some of those 250,000 DHS staff work in your community, shop in your stores, buy homes, etc. If you aren’t getting your share of the cookies, time to complain.

Third, mine the DHS budget for the many ineffectual programs (like the TSA) which have yet to produce a single terrorist. Go ahead and concede the fantasy of terrorists and even encourage it. Then you can ask: “OK, so if terrorists are lurking nearly everywhere, why haven’t you caught even one?”

I think there are a variety of factors driving DHS:

  • The government wants to be seen as doing something to prevent terrorism, even if their efforts are totally ineffectual. Such as feeling up little children at airports.
  • The DHS distributed jobs and purchases across the economy and that is viewed as a benefit (cookie) by many member of congress.
  • Preservation of the DHS as a department, which is its main rationale for continuing to exist. Going on fourteen (14) years without a single terrorist arrest by the TSA should be proof enough that the United States is a terrorist desert (except for the mentally ill entrapped by the FBI).

Let’s concede the terrorist fantasy and then cut the legs out from under DHS.

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