Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Data gets old quickly

The Glenn Greenwald vehicle The Intercept has a splashy story noting the preposterous size (around 1 million people) of one of the US government terrorist databases. But there are some puzzling things about some of the charts in the article, which appear to draw directly from powerpoint presentations within the US government about the database.

The main problem is that even though the numbers are presented as being as of 2013, they make several references to Al Qaeda in Iraq and even use an obscure acronym for that group (AQIZ) -- a group and a leader (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) that hasn't existed since 2008. Of course that group's DNA is present in ISIL, which descended from it, but ISIL is not mentioned at all in the database, whereas its more established competitor Al Nusra Front is mentioned, but only in the context of a social media-style "trending" analysis.

The Intercept article also presents what it sees as a contradiction -

Although the Obama administration has repeatedly asserted that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula poses the most significant external terrorist threat to the United States, the 8,211 people identified as being tied to the group actually represent the smallest category on the list of the top ten recognized terrorist organizations.

That's the difference between ranking groups based on "number of members" and "the one with a badass bombmaker" which is why the overall assessment can differ from the number of people in a database. It's something easily Googled, which might also be a better use of the NSA powerpointer's time/