31 May 2004

Common Sense and Computer Analysis

Common Sense and Computer Analysis:

By Heather Mac Donald
The Washington Post

Irrational paranoia about computer technology threatens to shut down an entire front in the war on terror.

A prestigious advisory panel has just recommended that the Defense Department get permission from a federal court any time it wants to use computer analysis on its own intelligence files. It would be acceptable, according to the panel, for a human agent to pore over millions of intelligence records looking for al Qaeda suspects who share phone numbers, say, and have traveled to terror haunts in South America. But program a computer to make that same search, declares the advisory committee, and judicial approval is needed, because computer analysis of intelligence databanks allegedly violates "privacy."

This nonsensical rule is the latest development in the escalating triumph of privacy advocacy over common sense. Unfortunately, the privacy crusade is jeopardizing national security as well.

The advisory committee's technophobia does not end with intelligence analysis. It would also require the defense secretary to give approval for, and certify the absolute necessity of, Google searches by intelligence agents. Even though any 12-year-old with a computer can freely surf the Web looking for Islamist chat rooms, defense analysts may not do so, according to the panel, without strict oversight.

The defense secretary should reject the panel's recommendations, which are based neither in logic nor in law. The government receives 126 million intelligence intercepts a day. Humans cannot possibly keep up with the intelligence tidal wave; anti-terror agents miss connections between suspects, places and events every day. Computer analysis of intelligence data is not merely optional, it is virtually required, for the government to have any hope of extracting evidence of terrorist activity from the tsunami of possibly relevant information. To demand a laborious court appeal every time the government wants to sift that data electronically would bring our intelligence efforts to a halt, and leave us vulnerable to the next terror attack.

The writer is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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