Monday, August 24, 2009

Negative Thoughts about False Positives

Apparently, I have not been writing about instances of synchronicity for a couple of years; but, since one of the first such instances I detected happened to involve Facebook, a curious coincidence of events has prompted me to return to the subject. The first of these events was the decision of Book TV to rebroadcast a talk that Stephen Baker gave about his book, The Numerati, at the Free Library of Philadelphia last year. Baker has that wonderful gift of bringing clarity to a topic most of whose practitioners prefer to keep concealed in a cloud of jargon intended to obscure just how much of the alleged discipline is little more than fuzzy speculations. He is particularly good at exercising his gift on the subject of data mining. He thus set the perfect context for today's Military Tech report by CNET Blog Network writer Mark Rutherford in the problem of too many false positives showing up in the use of data mining to identify potential terrorists (a problem identified by the National Research Council almost a year ago).

It seemed appropriate that, in the course of his book talk, Baker told the old joke about the drunk looking for his car keys under a lamppost. (He dropped the keys on the other side of the street, but the light was better under the lamppost.) The general consensus is that data mining sheds light, and there are too many stakeholders in the promotion of the technology for anyone to be so bold as to ask whether it is shining the light in a useful direction. The Departments of Defense and Homeland Security have thus become small boys with the hammer of data mining viewing every human being appearing on any social network anywhere (think Facebook) as a nail to be pounded.

Once again we are faced with a narrative that originated decades ago in literary humor; and once again the humorists were members of the Beyond the Fringe team. In this case the text grew out of an examination of the "Great Train Robbery" that took place in England in the mid-Sixties. Peter Cook played "Sir Arthur Gappy, the First Deputy Head of New Scotland Yard" as interviewed by Alan Bennett. The exchange is not so much about data mining itself as it is about more general misconceptions about technology:

Cook: But we are using the wonderful equipment known as 'Identikit' – do you know about that?

Bennett: Yes, that's when you piece together the face of the criminal, isn't it?

Cook: Not entirely, no … we're only able to piece together the appearance of the face of the criminal. Unfortunately, we're not able to piece the face together – I wish we could. Once you have captured the criminal face the other criminal parts of the body are not hard to find – the criminal body is situated directly beneath the criminal face – joined of course by the criminal neck … anyway, through this wonderful system of 'Identikit", we have pieced together an extremely good likeness of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Bennett: So His Grace is your number one suspect?

Cook: Well, let me put it this way – His Grace is the man we are currently beating the living daylights out of down at the Yard.

Bennett: And he is still your number one suspect?

Cook: No, I'm happy to say that the Archbishop, God bless him, no longer resembles the picture we built up. A change I think for the better – he thinks for the worse.

In the days before the Bush Administration ran rampant in the quest to seek out terrorists and punish them with neither mercy nor due process of law, we could laugh at Cook's sense of humor. Now his words have a ring of truth that should have a chilling effect on all of us. Unfortunately, if we are to believe Rutherford's report, both the humor and the irony are probably lost at the operations level of our Government.

No comments: