Saturday, June 5, 2010

Data mining won't make you safer

(Wednesday 31st December 2008)

This holiday I read a fantastic novel called Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. It reminded me of how UK and US moves to collect more data about their citizens and give more powers to 'security' staff are in fact worse than useless. As someone who works in language processing I note with dismay the tendency of technologists to happily provide mining of personal data for state purposes, while cheerfully ignoring the fact that it won't make anyone any safer.

There are many reasons why invading privacy is counter-productive. Two important ones are:

  • the information isn't useful
  • state power is almost always abused

Why isn't the information useful? Imagine a method which is 99% successful at detecting anomalous behaviour and suggesting further investigation. Let's apply that method to 50 million adults in the UK, for example. That's 500,000 people who you now have to regard as suspects. In fact the accuracy of data mining in this type of case is much more likely to be around 50%, so if you collect all the data you can you'll still only know that 10s of millions of people might be suspect. Useless.

Second, security service personnel are just like everyone else: some are consciencious and some are unscrupulous. While you might just about consider it acceptable for all your personal data to be in the hands of a conscienscious, competent, well-trained and well-provisionned state employee, are we really naive enough to imagine that this covers everyone in every police force, army barracks or 'intelligence' office? Of course not; and if we were, the recent history of appalling miscarriages of justice should soon convince us otherwise.

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