Taking a liberty

Dave Wilson describes how new data mining software could help the police nab terrorists.

‘We are all conceived in close prison; in our mothers wombs, we are close prisoners all; when we are born, we are born but to the liberty of the house; prisoners still, though within larger walls; and then all our life is but a going out to the place of execution, to death.’ – John Donne.

It’s a terrifying thought isn’t it? At least one hundred terrorists trained by Osama bin Laden are ‘at large’ in Britain. That’s, of course, if you believe the claims made last Sunday by the recently retired head of London’s police force Sir John Stevens in that most prestigious of all British organs ‘The News of the World.’

Given these undisputed facts, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair must surely be right to insist that the only way to combat this threat is to pass into law the new ‘Prevention of Terrorism Bill.’ That would give the powers that be the ultimate control on terror suspects: the ability to put them under house arrest, electronically tag them and ban them from using the Internet and telephones. That’s, of course, whether they have been proven guilty or not.

Well, it’s one solution that’s for sure. But it’s certainly not the best one, as those learned colleagues of mine who have several degrees in the art of computer science have pointed out to me exclusively this week.

No, there’s a much more effective way for the boys in blue to track and then hopefully nail all of those one hundred or so foreign fellas that are planning a repeat of 9/11 here in the UK. And that’s through the use of computer technology. More specifically, through the use of so-called ‘data mining’ techniques.

Data mining is quite a simple concept. When a computer is given a set, or sets, of data, it extract patterns of behaviour in that data that can, at least in this particular instance, reveal threats to national security.

Conceptually simple, but computationally and data intensive. And that’s due to the fact that to build such a complex piece of data mining software, researchers would need to tailor the many types of modelling software that are already in use today for this specific application – as well as develop some proprietary techniques too. In addition, the new software would then have to run on gargantuan data sets that would undoubtedly have to include personal information such as biometric data, credit card transactions, airline activity, and…. race and religion.

Of course this all means spending quite a lot of money. And that’s where the problem lies. I figure that just to develop the software, you’d probably need close to $5 million. Then, on top of that, you’d have to acquire a plethora of data about everyone in the country and process it in real-time to produce any meaningful results. Getting this sort of data and running it through the system would cost many millions more. Possibly upwards of $500 million.

But at the end of the day, wouldn’t it be worth it? After all, we could then all rest easy at night, knowing that Big Brother was looking after us. And although our every movement would be tracked consistently, we could be assured that out civil liberties had not have been infringed by the passage of the Prevention of Terrorism bill.

One the other hand, if it means that my taxes will have to go up to pay for it, why not just pass the Terrorism Bill and have done with it.