Monday, December 28, 2009

Terrorism's black swans

Matthew Yglesias thinks the problem revealed by the Detroit plane bomber is Too Much Information --

Out of the six billion people on the planet only a numerically insignificant fraction are actually dangerous terrorists. Even if you want to restrict your view to one billion Muslims, the math is the same. Consequently, tips, leads and the like are overwhelmingly going to be pointing to innocent people. You end up with a system that’s overwhelmed and paralyzed. If there were hundreds of thousands of al-Qaeda operatives trying to board planes every year, we’d catch lots of them. But we’re essentially looking for needles in haystacks.

OK, but of the 6 billion people on the planet, how many were 23 year old single men who paid for their ticket in cash, had no checked bags, had gotten a call to a US Embassy saying that they were bad news, had recently been denied a visa to the UK, and as a result of the Embassy tip, were already in one of the government's surveillance databases? And that's before we see all the recent passport stamps.

That's a pretty big needle in a pretty small haystack. The securocrats had the right amount of information. They didn't use it.

UPDATE: His visa for Yemen was apparently in the same passport as his US visa. Who looked at his passport when his journey to Detroit began?

FINAL UPDATE: The "too much information" talking point is buried -- by Barack Obama --

We've achieved much since 9/11 in terms of collecting information that relates to terrorists and potential terrorist attacks. But it's becoming clear that the system that has been in place for years now is not sufficiently up to date to take full advantage of the information we collect and the knowledge we have.

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