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The Electronic Paper Trail of Terrorism

April 27, 2004

A public radio commentary

It seems in recent days that the terrorists have turned our high tech world against us - they've used sophisticated jets to destroy the World Trade Center, and set off bombs in Spain using cell phones. Yet by being part of the technological world of the West, terrorists organizations like al Qaeda leave themselves vulnerable to technological detection.

You see, when terrorists operate in the industrial world they leave a trail from telephone calls, e-mail messages, and financial transactions. In fact, all told, some 2,500 cables arrive every day from CIA stations around the globe, plus some 17,000 new bits of intelligence from other sources every week. This would be enough information to fill about 1000 bound copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

That amount of information would take a human mind days, even months, to process and digest. So, today those fighting terrorism use computers to do what's called "data-mining." The military and intelligence agencies use computer programs developed by domestic law enforcement agencies to track serial killers, arsonists, and the bank accounts of white collar criminals.

The terrorist hunters feed the electronic "paper trail" left by al Qaeda into their computers, which performs something called "link analysis." The computer connects all of the dots, if you will, between apparently disparate fragments of information. A transaction at a bank in Paris, say, might appear unrelated to the purchase of an airline ticket in Madrid, but the computer ties together all these individual transactions producing a byzantine map of activity, which, if the authorities are lucky, shows the epi-center of terrorist activity.

This might seem a simple task to make the links, but the problem is branching: If one transaction ties seven people together, and these seven in turn connect with seven more, then the numbers grow very quickly. In just seven transactions of this type there can be nearly a million links to study. Small wonder that the CIA's wall's are covered with printouts as large as bed sheets laying out al Qaeda's far-flung activity. Although we like the idea of tracking silently a terrorist organization like al Qaeda, in the end we're all losers as these computer programs become more sophisticated. We like them because it means law enforcement has moved in the direction of anticipating and forestalling crime, but ultimately that requires tracking every citizen thoughout his or her life - geographically, commercially, and biologically. That prospect offers the potential for enormous abuse. Although we might relish being able to silently track a notorious group like al Qaeda, we must keep in mind that the most insidious technique is the one which makes itself felt the least, and which represents the least burden, yet lets every citizen be thoroughly known to the State.

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises