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What Medical Tests Should Teach Us About the NSA Surveillance Program 107

First time accepted submitter Davak writes "In many ways finding the small amount of terrorists within the United States is like screening a population of people for a rare disease. A physician explains why collecting excessive data is actually dangerous. Each time a test is run, the number of people incorrectly identified quickly dwarfs the correct matches. Just like in medicine, being incorrectly labelled has serious consequences."
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What Medical Tests Should Teach Us About the NSA Surveillance Program

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  • well duh. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Gravis Zero ( 934156 ) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @09:35AM (#44276449)

    the NSA is not concerned about infringing on people's rights and civil liberties. if we are going with medical analogies, i think the NSA would rather amputate than treat an infection.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      "The NSA" would not "rather" do anything, because "the NSA" doesn't make up missions for itself; it only responds to Information Needs (INs) levied upon it. "The NSA" is only interested responding to the INs as aggressively as possible under the law. If it's not doing everything possible under the law, I'm not sure what it should be doing.

      Of course, this analogy is all wrong, too, because everyone assumes that NSA is "mining" the phone call metadata, when in reality it is only collecting it so that it may b

      • by Anonymous Coward

        "The NSA" would not "rather" do anything, because "the NSA" doesn't make up missions for itself; it only responds to Information Needs (INs) levied upon it.

        Really? So everything the NSA does is decided explicitly by politicians. I find that hard to believe. Care to provide any citation backing up this claim?

        "The NSA" is only interested responding to the INs as aggressively as possible under the law.

        However, this claim is false because we now know that the NSA violated the US constitution.

        If it's not doing everything possible under the law, I'm not sure what it should be doing.

        Gathering a reasonable amount of intelligence under adequate judicial oversight? A reasonable cost/benefit tradeoff like everywhere else and without violating the constitition? Just some crazy ideas, I know, I know...

        Of course, this analogy is all wrong, too, because everyone assumes that NSA is "mining" the phone call metadata, when in reality it is only collecting it so that it may be queried for specific targets later. (I realize people believe it is all being mined with no proof of this and in contravention of everything in the leaks and numerous on- and off-the-record statements from current and former officials and other experts. I also realize people think all internet traffic is being collected and mined, even though there is no proof of this, either, and a program that was collecting internet metadata for later searching was terminated in 2011.

        These claims are mostly false. However, independen

      • There is no proof that all internet traffic and phone metadata is being collected and mined? All anyone has to do to determine that that is a blatant falsehood is google nsa hdoop mine. Even if that were not the case, you are making the assumption the NSA is not. That is av far more dangerous assumption to make.
  • by Sponge Bath ( 413667 ) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @09:36AM (#44276453)
    After glancing over the summary, I'm fine with doctors are experimenting on terrorist dwarves.
    • I'm not sure I like that bald-faced attack on dwarves. It ends up siding against dwarves while equating the NSA with the Uruk-hai, and I don't think that's fair to the Uruk-hai.

  • It seems likely (Score:5, Insightful)

    by The Real Dr John ( 716876 ) * on Sunday July 14, 2013 @09:38AM (#44276463) Homepage
    That the NSA is not specifically looking for terrorists, although that is the convenient excuse. They are looking for all sorts of things, and that is why they are collecting everything. They are listening in on foreign diplomats to see what they are up to, they are eavesdropping on foreign corporations to give US companies an advantage in trade deals, they are digging up dirt on political enemies and protesters, and they are checking up on reporters to help keep them in line, and they are especially looking for whistle blowers who might throw some light on what they are doing with our tax dollars. All of these activities have been reported, so it doesn't take much imagination to realize they are collecting everything they can on purpose and for numerous reasons, most of which are not to the benefit of the American people. If the intention was to help the American people, they would be putting all that computing power into bioinformatics to cure cancer and other diseases that kill half a million Americans a year.
    • Re:It seems likely (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Livius ( 318358 ) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @10:30AM (#44276827)

      If the intention was to help the American people

      The goal is to benefit the bank accounts of a small set of the American people.

      Sociopaths will flatter themselves that they got it close enough.

    • by gringer ( 252588 )

      Of course. Pat Buchanan talked about this recently at NetHui [nethui.org.nz] in New Zealand:

      Terrorism is a fig leaf placed on the intelligence business to justify what they do. Terrorism is not the bulk of what intelligence agencies do. The bulk of what they do (to include the GCSB) is traditional state-to-state espionage, Increasingly cyber in manifestation. But 90% of what intelligence agencies do, in this country and elsewhere, is spy on other states (perhaps spy on commercial entities connected to a state). But terrorism is the buzzword that western intelligence agencies use to justify all sorts of sins.

      Video link here [youtube.com], which also explains how the GCSB gets around not being able to spy on NZ citizens via contracting their staff out to other agencies. Also, 80-90% of intelligence is gathered from freely available sources (e.g. facebook, twitter), so terrorism is a 10% of 10% sort of thing in terms of surveillance laws.

    • Indeed. In much the same sense as the warrantless wiretaps got the nod because they would primarily be used on terrorists, and have since been found to be used almost exclusively on non-terrorist related crimes, there is a fair chance that the NSA is not watching only foreigners engaged in acts of sabotage, but is 'helping out' other agencies as well with their daily chores. That's on a broad basis -> on an individual basis, there are, no doubt, petty individual requests / favors being carried out, much

  • Flawed Analogy (Score:4, Insightful)

    by the eric conspiracy ( 20178 ) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @10:00AM (#44276563)

    Correctly done, Medical testing is made more accurate by gathering additional data.

    Basic tests are generally inexpensive but have a pretty high false positive rate. The key here is to have a very low false negative rate first and then minimize the false positive rate with additional tests.

    If a positive result is obtained additional data is gathered using different tests aimed at eliminating the false positives. This additional testing is often more invasive and expensive, however it drastically reduces the number of false positives.

    The premise this article is based on is just repeating the initial screening over and over. That's not what happens.

    • Re:Flawed Analogy (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Davak ( 526912 ) * on Sunday July 14, 2013 @10:15AM (#44276689) Homepage

      When you screen huge masses of people needlessly, almost all to all of your hits are going to be incorrect. Additional testing of these false positives are harmful. Biopsies, radiation, no-fly lists -- harmful.

      Nobody is saying that we should never wiretap if we have evidence. That's testing a small population. The problem here is that we are wiretapping everybody to attempt to find evidence.

      • Re:Flawed Analogy (Score:4, Insightful)

        by anagama ( 611277 ) <obamaisaneocon@nothingchanged.org> on Sunday July 14, 2013 @01:05PM (#44277945) Homepage

        The problem here is that we are wiretapping everybody to attempt to find evidence.

        Honestly, I think the Feds know that collecting huge amounts of random data makes the job of finding bad people harder, not easier. But the point of the program isn't about finding bad guys, it is mainly to create a repository of information that can be accessed whenever they want to silence critics.

        They don't care if they send you to prison because of your activism itself, they just want you in prison. This data collection coupled with a Federal code base so vast and vague as to be unknowable, basically ensures that everyone is a criminal and makes it trivial to suppress dissent simply by rummaging through the data store, finding some random bit of nonsense, and charging that person with 50 years worth of bullshit. Or as Snowden would say, it's "turnkey tyranny."

      • No-fly lists aren't a test. It's more like a vaccine which we don't know what the positive effects of. The negatives are well publicized though.

      • Re:Flawed Analogy (Score:5, Informative)

        by AthanasiusKircher ( 1333179 ) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @01:29PM (#44278115)

        When you screen huge masses of people needlessly, almost all to all of your hits are going to be incorrect.

        Yes, this is something that apparently even most doctors don't understand. Suppose who had a simple problem like this:

        1% of women at age forty who participate in routine screening have breast cancer. 80% of women with breast cancer will get positive mammographies. 9.6% of women without breast cancer will also get positive mammographies. A woman in this age group had a positive mammography in a routine screening. What is the probability that she actually has breast cancer?

        The correct answer (calculated from Bayes' Theorem, or simple logic) is 7.8%. Most doctors cannot do this problem, and that not only get the answer wrong, but they often get it wildly off -- estimating the answer to be much greater than 50% (often 70% or so, probably from simply subtracting the two numbers).

        If you don't believe me, have a look at this link [yudkowsky.net]. As the author says there:

        usually, only around 15% of doctors get it right. ("Really? 15%? Is that a real number, or an urban legend based on an Internet poll?" It's a real number. See Casscells, Schoenberger, and Grayboys 1978; Eddy 1982; Gigerenzer and Hoffrage 1995; and many other studies. It's a surprising result which is easy to replicate, so it's been extensively replicated.)

        The author here is being generous. I looked at these studies years ago, and many of them show only 5-10% getting the answer to such problems correct.

        And if this is true of physicians, it's probably true of just about anyone else who encounters a lot of false positives and isn't used to thinking statistically. That means most people are very likely to draw incorrect conclusions about the prevalence of something when the false-positive rate is high... making those using the methodology assume that (1) their methodology is better than it is, and (2) that with more "assumed positives" from incorrect logic, the incidence of whatever they're looking for in the population is higher than it is.

      • Let's say there are about 1000 terrorists in the US at any given time (likely a vast overestimate.) There are about 300,000,000 non-terrorist people in the US (319 million total US population as of the last census.) Let's assume a hypothetical test for being a terrorist is given to everyone in the US, which detects 99.9% of all terrorists, and gets false positives 0.001% of the time.
        999 terrorists will be caught by the test. 1 will go free.
        3000 innocent people will be caught as terrorists.

        That's part of why
    • by sjames ( 1099 )

      Unfortunately, in the case of the NSA, that's exactly what happens. If you show positive on one of the screening tests for terrorism, boom! you're on the no-fly list. It's like immediately giving full chemo and whole body radiation if the nurse thinks a mole looks a bit suspicious.

      Even with properly used screening tests, if the followup test is expensive or invasive, it's often better to just skip it if you have no particular reason to suspect you have a given condition.

    • by Alomex ( 148003 )

      If a positive result is obtained additional data is gathered using different tests aimed at eliminating the false positives.

      If the additional test is too expensive, then at least for the case of illnesses you wait for the first indicator to be something else like "doc, I'm not feeling ok". By now if the test comes positive you have two indicators of a possible illness which now makes the expensive test worthwhile.

    • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      Re The premise this article is based on is just repeating the initial screening over and over. That's not what happens.
      We do have some historical pointers. The CIA, MI6, NGO, faith based support for protest movements sent into "sealed" 1980's Eastern Europe.
      Printing equipment (small and large scale), tv/radio broadcast efforts, books, Bibles, capturing images of life under house arrest.
      Every container, bag, box, person, car, van, truck would have to be searched entering - no fun if you want hard curre
    • Some doctors have a name for what happens when modern hi-res imaging causes doctors to think benign irregularities may be harmful: getting "VOMIT"ed on...ie "Victim Of Medical Imaging Technology".
  • The databases become a nice preexisting conditions and Recissions list.

  • by Alain Williams ( 2972 ) <addw@phcomp.co.uk> on Sunday July 14, 2013 @10:08AM (#44276645) Homepage

    As your elected representative let me enlighten you as to why you voted for me rather than the other guy:

    * I made good, powerful speaches. I went to some classes to help with this, it is more important that I dress in a good suit and have a strong voice than what I say makes sense.

    * I avoided checking facts when making opinions. If you know the facts you realise that things are not black & white, but to express that makes people think that you are a ditherer, that you don't know what you stand for. Who wants a politician who, when asked a question instead of saying ''yes'' or ''no'' says something long and boring that starts with ''It depends'' ?

    * Most of you don't look at the facts, you work on gut feeling and gross extrapolation. You remember that story in the local press last week about the thief from out of town who had green eyes, blond hair and a limp ? Yes: you are quite right to know that everyone from out of town with blond hair & a limp is a good for nothing crook and we don't want people like that round here!

    * You people just want to be safe. You don't care what happens to out of townies, how hard we make it for them; or even foreigners -- some of who have a skin of a funny colour. They just don't matter!

    * You don't really know what safe means, but are happy if you can still watch TV and drink beer when supporting your team. My predecessor did not do anything to make you realise that you can do something else, neither will I --so you will vote for me next time.

    * In order to get on the short list for election I had to sign up to what the party says. They won't listen to a newbie like me, if I ask questions there are plenty of others to choose from who do what the party bosses say.

    * Do you know how much I got in ''research grants'' and travel ''expences'' from the large corpotations? To say nothing about my fee for 2 days work a year as a consultant. I must not upset them by saying something that upsets them. All that money buys a lot of publicity as well as letting me buy that new yacht..

    * I have a good friend who knows people, (I don't want to know why they are), but I got warnings of the other guy's plans and it was mighty useful when his campaign manager was caught in bed with that young ... that no one had seen before

    So you see, I would be really silly if I upset the status quo and made you think for yourself.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    You're also missing a much bigger problem with his choice. When you collect data on a disease, the disease doesn't take steps to avoid being in the data. It's not a sentient being like terrorists. The terrorists aren't in the dataset he's collecting, because he's collecting the low hanging fruit in the easy to process data formats.

    General Alexander decided simply to store it all, and so that is what happened. Terrorism is just the excuse. IT WAS NEVER HIS CHOICE TO MAKE. He was never given the power to flip

    • by gweihir ( 88907 )

      Hehehe, nice sentiment. Unfortunately, the opposite could happen, namely a president could be elected that thinks all this surveillance is a good idea and to start using it against dissenters and "undesirables" in the population. And political opponents as well. The date collected is ideally suited to these purposes. If that happens, the US will make Nazi Germany look tame.

  • by Rambo Tribble ( 1273454 ) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @10:15AM (#44276699) Homepage

    Whether excessive medical tests or excessive surveillance, the minions happily promote it to ensure their job security. If the patient or the society suffers, well, that's okay. Perhaps a bit regrettable, but okay.

    Ultimately, a society that strenuously promotes competition also engenders a mercenary attitude. So, you see, the excesses of Wall Street are not that far removed from the excesses of the NSA, or Microsoft, to pick but a very few examples.

  • by nbauman ( 624611 ) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @10:31AM (#44276845) Homepage Journal

    Here's another doctor who made the same argument about testing for illegal drugs. Be sure to catch the distinction between screening tests and diagnostic tests.

    http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2013/07/drug-testing-considered-screening-tests.html [kevinmd.com]
    Should drug testing be considered screening tests?
    Chris Rangel, MD | Conditions | July 12, 2013

    ... The problem of a false positive test is frequently encountered in the practice of medicine. Depending on the clinical circumstances and the nature of the initial test, follow up evaluation with more expensive and possibly more invasive testing is often required in order to verify the results. For example, an abnormality found on the chest x-ray of a smoker with a bad cough requires further evaluation. A CT scan of the chest, bronchoscopy, and even a needle biopsy to obtain a tissue sample for analysis are required before making a diagnosis of lung cancer and starting treatment.

    However, the possibility of a false positive drug screen and the need for further testing and evaluation is rarely considered outside the context of clinical practice. Employers, school administrators, government agencies, and law enforcement can and do consider a positive drug test to be perfectly equivalent to an admission of illicit drug use. This frequently results in the administration of some form of punishment or corrective action being delivered without giving the accused the right to defend themselves in any way. Essentially, drug testing is an effective way to violate a person’s right to due process since most drug screening is managed by lay people in non-clinical roles who believe that drug testing is 100% reliable. But this would be the same absurdity as giving chemotherapy to the smoker with the abnormal chest x-ray without first trying to verify the diagnosis with further evaluation (due process).

    The other problem comes from the mass drug testing of large numbers of people (either random or at the initial point of contact). The interpretation of the results of a medical test are never as simple as positive or negative. The statistical probability of a false positive or a false negative result must be considered in concert with the pretest probability....

  • If you want a medical to NSA the analogy would be they test someone and they have a sexual transmitted disease and it shows positive. The person says I had sex with person X so the medical team says we need to check with person X and see if they actually had sex with the person and if they did if they got the disease. If so then person X needs to be handled as required.
  • The NSA is full of really smart people. There is not much we can come up with here they haven't thought of. The problem is that they are not being evaluated by how many attacks they stop (see the Boston bombings). They get measured by how active and busy they look.

    Political ignoramuses consider a short, narrow targeted no-fly list a failure (picture Bush Jr in the oval office: "you've only found 100 people after I gave you 10Gigadollars???") while they are very impressed with a 100K long no-fly list ("you a

  • When you weaponize computers everything could look as a disease. Running a trojan (or worse, removing a software that is a government trojan), receiving spam message, doing a "funny comment", or just someone else playing social engineering could put you in the enemy of the state list. The fake version of the disease is the one viral, not the disease per se (even if the government is trying very hard to have sick people to justify what they are doing)

    In medical terms, what is being perpetrated is creating a

  • by gweihir ( 88907 ) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @11:58AM (#44277499)

    Unless they are terminally stupid, they do not. Surveillance does not actually help against terrorism, and the NSA does know that very well. Terrorism is just a convenient pretext (i.e. lie) to justify the surveillance. What they are really interested in is profiling every person they can get data on and identify dissenters, independent thinkers, etc. as these can threaten a police state, as the US is more and more becoming.

    What they are overlooking is that this is extremely dangerous. Just have one president go off the deep end, and the US will make Nazi Germany look tame. All the surveillance and population control mechanisms are already in place. The police is already used to shoot citizens as a matter of routine. Prisons are in ample supply. The only thing missing is the madman at the top. It will be just a question of time before that one is found.

  • When doctors say it's bad to collect too much information, they're talking about medicine not liability. Liability determines the motivations, and tells us how both doctors and the NSA will act:

    If Doctors or the NSA don't identify someone: Major liability (although doctors only have to ID patients they encounter, not everyone in the general population)
    If Doctors or the NSA have false positives: No liability (because it was an honest mistake, by people doing their best)
    If Doctors or the NSA don't treat/inves

  • When Law Enforcement sits on its ass and reads a screen, few things are more useful.
  • TFA has some merits, but also some limits, as some medical test are quite reliable. For instance, I do not see how we are going to make fake positive by screening vitamin D levels.
  • I had the good fortune to run across Bayes Theorem (Not by name) in an article about misdiagnosing problems in Discover magazine back in the 80's, and for some reason filed the factoid away as 'Oh, this is *important* and is going to apply to a lot of things' and have never forgotten it.

    The fundamental takeaway for me is "It doesn't *matter* how accurate your test is - what matters is how accurate it is compared to how rare the condition you're looking for is.". Random drug tests, random highway stops, the

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