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Algorithms Claimed To Hunt Terrorists While Protecting the Privacy of Others (vice.com) 81

An anonymous reader sends this report from Motherboard: Computer scientists at the University of Pennsylvania have developed an algorithmic framework for conducting targeted surveillance of individuals within social networks while protecting the privacy of untargeted digital bystanders. ... The algorithms are based on a few basic ideas. The first is that every member of a network (a graph) comes with a sequence of bits indicating their membership in a targeted group. If say, the number two bit was set in your personal privacy register, then you might be part of the “terrorist” target population. For an algorithm searching a network for targets, it doesn’t just get to ask to reveal every network member’s bits. It has a budget of sorts, where it can only reveal so many bits and no more. The algorithms work to optimize this scenario such that as many bits-of-interest are revealed as possible. It does this optimization via a notion known as a statistic of proximity (SOP), which is a quantification of how close a given graph node is to a targeted group of nodes. This is what guides the search algorithms.
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Algorithms Claimed To Hunt Terrorists While Protecting the Privacy of Others

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  • by sunderland56 ( 621843 ) on Wednesday January 13, 2016 @01:19AM (#51291663)

    When signing up for Facebook, everyone needs to either check or uncheck the "I am a terrorist" box. That way the Government can do detailed searches on terrorsts only, and not invade the privacy of non-terrorists.

    • by Fire_Wraith ( 1460385 ) on Wednesday January 13, 2016 @01:40AM (#51291703)
      You joke, but this is actually a question on the customs declaration and entry form given to everyone arriving in the United States.

      Of course, they don't actually expect anyone to say 'yes' - the idea (as I understand it) is to give the authorities one more thing to charge an actual terrorist with.
      • Are you sure? I just entered the US a couple months ago, and I don't remember seeing it on the customs declaration. I could have just forgotten that part, though.
      • You joke, but this is actually a question on the customs declaration and entry form given to everyone arriving in the United States.

        Of course, they don't actually expect anyone to say 'yes' - the idea (as I understand it) is to give the authorities one more thing to charge an actual terrorist with.

        If you're a US Citizen they don't make you sign that on entry, at least not normally. I don't know offhand for foreigners of if you're bringing in a lot of goods. They *do* have that on security clearance applications.

        And you're right, the idea isn't that you'll answer yes, it's that if you answer no and turn out to be a terrorist or have supported terrorism, etc..., then you've committed a felony by having lied to a federal officer. (YES. Lying to feds is a crime. The First Amendment doesn't protect y

        • The sort of people who use "yes I'm a terrorist" as an excuse to remove your civil rights -- or at least load up charges, are the same douche-bags who would falsify evidence because they KNEW you were guilty.

          Nobody is convinced by "yes I'm a terrorist" but the dishonest and eager. It seems our local PD mentality runs all the way to our HS. If they can't find real terrorists, they keep lowering the bar to call SOMEONE a terrorist.

          I can hear it now; "OK, we didn't find any weapons, but we do know that you lie

        • And you're right, the idea isn't that you'll answer yes, it's that if you answer no and turn out to be a terrorist or have supported terrorism, etc..., then you've committed a felony by having lied to a federal officer. (YES. Lying to feds is a crime. The First Amendment doesn't protect you from that.) So they can arrest you and throw away the key, at least for a while.

          But it's only a lie if you have been convicted of terrorism, surely?

          In which case, serving an extra year or two for lying to the Feds on top of the forty eight thousand years you'll get for actual terrorism seems irrelevant.

          • But it's only a lie if you have been convicted of terrorism, surely?

            It depends on the precise question. Usually it's not "are you a terrorist" so much as "Have you ever been a member of, or in any way associated (either directly or indirectly) with a terrorist organization." That's the question on the n-400 application for naturalization. Lying about it can get you arrested even if the way you were associated would not have. Like, I don't know, if you married a girl and then found out she has an uncle in ISIS. It's not a crime to marry a girl who has an uncle in ISIS (

            • I can make a good case that the US has participated in terrorism in my lifetime, so I suppose I'd have to answer "yes".

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Knuckles ( 8964 )

        On the visa application form, https://www.schneier.com/blog/... [schneier.com]

      • It swells my heart with pride to say that the TSA has caught everyone checking YES on the question; "I am a terrorist and thanks for asking!" And exactly ZERO smart assess who can't help themselves by making fun of Homeland Security have gone unpunished.

        To date, they may have saved the planet, or at least dealt with up-armored homeless people before this and the urine smell on subways escalates beyond control. Does all this splendiferous success merit a $1 trillion dollar price tag? Some cynic might say tha

      • It also gives them the ability to deport someone immediately if they gave a false answer on the form. (A few years ago, it became known that one of my next-door neighbors had been in the Galician SS, and was the commander of a unit that committed war crimes. Mikhail Karkov was a nice guy and good neighbor, BTW. You know that his entry papers said he hadn't been in the SS, although he had very little command of English at the time, and we were wondering if the State Department would use that to deport hi

    • by Anonymous Coward

      How about: "I own a gun."

    • Everyone will be profiled and rated in a method completely hidden from them.

      Just like the FBI, DOJ, TSA, DHS, etc.. do now in fact. The difference here is that it leaves open the "we outsourced that to Facebook and Google, we didn't have anything to do with their bad decisions." plausible deniability option. Those people can say "We took the algorithm from some professor at some college", so they get the same benefit.

      Yup, I am extremely cynical and have become so after being proven correct way too many tim

    • It's still dictatorship and lack of freedom of thought, opinion and expression.

      Why shall we be ruled by our nations and governments? Shouldn't they accept that?

      I hate my government, the traitors, the media, the immigrants.
      I'm open with that.
      I haven't attacked shit.

      If anything the problem isn't that we aren't allowed to speak and that people don't listen, the set the foundation for "terrorism" but what is "terrorism" anyhow?
      Wikipedia: "In a narrower sense, terrorism can be understood to feature a political

  • by Lisandro ( 799651 ) on Wednesday January 13, 2016 @01:24AM (#51291673)

    And i thought it was just a cool fun show.

  • Meaning, guilt by association. Yeah, that should work....

    • Meaning, guilt by association. Yeah, that should work....

      Not guilt, but suspicion by association, and yes it has worked. A while ago the FBI got phone bill type information ("metadata", both phone numbers, date/time, duration) for known organized crime members and built a graph of all the connections these phone calls revealed. The FBI knew most of the nodes in the graph would be innocents; even criminals make restaurant reservations, see if dry cleaning is ready, etc. However analysis of the graph helped discover people actively involved in organized crime who h

  • Sounds great, as long as the terrorists all set their "I am a terrorist" bits. Otherwise it is useless.
  • The obvious algorithm is to vacuum up all data from every citizen, in case your other algorithm gets updated you can re-run it more quickly and without risk of some of the data having been deleted since then.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Ok, I work in academia publishing (other field, though) and this is obviously an interesting math problem solved before somebody declared "hey, if we named those higher potential nodes as 'terrorist' we could apply to a bunch of military funds!"

    So what was it? I can think of versions of the travelling salesman (where non "terrorist" nodes act as cities that could be visited when designing a path to an "evil" one) or an electronics routing problem (where signals has to pass around heavy loaded blocks disturb

    • I'd fully expect the "algorithmic framework" has commercial uses too, particularly in advertising. And no doubt it could also be used to track networks of assorted "anti-socials". I guess that lacks the public appeal of the spin they actually used: "counterterrorism and the containment of infectious disease".
    • Indeed! :-) Alas, I can't find it now, but I can remember a similar 'proposal' for a single bit to be reserved to support a female-only USENET group. One more for the confected *gate community.
  • It's a Data Budget (Score:5, Informative)

    by mentil ( 1748130 ) on Wednesday January 13, 2016 @03:12AM (#51291857)

    Reading the article (gasp!) didn't elucidate things much beyond the summary, although it mentions infectious disease spreading as a possible application while maintaining privacy for unrelated health issues.

    In essence the idea is to use artificial scarcity via technological means to create a 'bit budget', where those who access a database of personal info are only allowed a certain amount of flags to search for; this encourages more efficient searching and thus less retrieval of extraneous data. This could be used so that private entities could try to find suitable targets for medical research or advertising, while revealing as little info about as few people as possible; and it might work in that situation. However, there are two big problems with this idea:

    1) It assumes the data is only accessible through this one database and can't be accessed in another, more privacy-invading way. If any analysts even suspect that the full dataset will be more useful, then they will use the full dataset if they can and this scheme will be useless. "More data better" seems to be the motto of Big Data despite the well-known haystack problem.

    2) Governments are always saying that barriers need to be broken down for their investigators, that they need more/new powers, so there's no way they'll stick to their bit budget. They're gonna ask for more, enough that they have effectively full access to the full dataset, and that's in the unlikely event that they're somehow limited to this access scheme. They're one private 'request', subpoena, or NSL away from full access, anyhow, and political pressure or tax/import/regulatory pressure would make most for-profit entities like Facebook cave in. If this database were maintained by some international nonprofit then it might stand a chance of resisting this.

  • The face? Others faces in a picture? Linguistic analysis? Terms used? Non english words? Slang? Tattoos or symbols? First hop of friends and their pics? Second hop of friends and their friends, links?
    3rd hop? Getting to the maths and scale of total collection yet? 4th hop?

    What can be found in a front facing web 2.0 site without the ip logs and support from regional ISP providers to ensure the ip range is even from a real persons computer, desktop, phone or tablet? For that deep telco support is
  • This isn't new, it goes back to before the Viet Nam war.

    It's dead simple: communist/terrorist/anti-American scum are anyone you've already killed. Women, children, infants, farm animals, trees, it makes no difference. As soon as a victim joins the corpse club they are automatically guilty. It's what's happening in the Middle East right now. It never went away.

    This will work the same way. That whole constitutional bullshit about "innocent until found guilty" is obsolete. Based on the "certainty" of the inf

  • It's basically the page rank algorithm but with new proximity measures.

    I think we all agree that this "state of the art" represents an automated version of 1984. The tool is there, it just depends on what you use it for, i.e. what your target population is.

    Proximity measures can be derived from anything on the Internet, and that opens the gates to widespread use (and abuse).

    Take e.g. proximity to known mafia members as a distance measure, and you'll find mafia networks (even though most of their conn

  • Tuttle... CLOSE ENOUGH.
  • Bullshit.

    The whole point of such algorithms is to determine who the terrorists are which means that if you 'associate' in some way (live near? work near? use a shooting range with? take airplane flying lessons in the same school as? share a clothing store with? visit a website with IS newsletters? ) with one or more terrorists your bits are going to flip.

  • by king neckbeard ( 1801738 ) on Wednesday January 13, 2016 @09:48AM (#51292677)
    The algorithm for finding criminals while protecting privacy was disclosed in an ancient process called "getting a warrant."
    • Exactly!

      Of course the computer scientists at University of Pennsylvania who are in bed with the NSA, fail to grasp the fundamental problem. It has very little to do with the data mining they suggest they found a solution for. The simple problem is: THEY ARE COLLECTING DATA FROM EVERYONE! Earth to Potsy, that's the problem. The NSA is collecting information from EVERYONE and storing it regardless of value.
    • No, a warrant is (according to the Fourth Amendment) issued by a judge where there is sworn probable cause to believe it's, um, warranted. The police have to find some sort of probable cause before getting the warrant (or lie their asses off, which is also done). This means they have to do other things to find who's likely to have committed a particular crime before getting a warrant.

  • This is referred to as differential privacy by Cynthia Dwork. She's an expert on the techniques used to perform data mining without personally identifiable information about "other" people in the dataset. Here's a video of a fascinating talk she gave that outlines her work:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vh2xfgfymHk [youtube.com]

  • Even if it would work flawless, the problem is "the targeted group". For the NSA, the target is the suspected terrorist (one wrong word in a mail), his friends and the friends of his friends. As TARGETs. So even when all others are spared, its still the average number of friends to the power of two.

Today's scientific question is: What in the world is electricity? And where does it go after it leaves the toaster? -- Dave Barry, "What is Electricity?"