Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Scanning for nuclear terrorism

You know me, I love all things 80s.

The threat of global thermonuclear war is one aspect of that favorite decade that I could do without, however.  It's always been a big fear of mine.  Now with the escalating standoff with Iran and North Korea threatening to test another nuke, that fear is resurfacing.   Just what I was looking for.  Fuck-a-doodle-do.  After looking around a bit, I found that former Secretary of Defense William Perry concedes that there is a "greater than 50 percent probability of a nuclear strike on US targets within a decade."  What's more, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara concurs.

This is not to say that a nation like North Korea or Iran have an capability whatsoever of striking the U.S. from their home soil.  A more likely threat is terrorist-style weapon, a smuggled nuclear device of the kind in Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears.

What's being done about this threat?  One approach that the Department of Homeland Defense is formulating is called FAST: Future Attribute Screening Technology.  Detecting whether or not someone has the potential to commit an act of terrorism.  That's right.  It's not science fiction.  It's not the movie Minority Report.  It's technology that will likely be installed at airports.  It will watch for physiological and behavioral warning signs of terrorists.  These would include but are not limited to heart rate, body temperature, and body language.  This data is then run through an algorithm that will...in theory...help identify terrorists.

But as the author of that last linked story in The Atlantic goes on to establish, such methods of "pre-crime detection" are dicey at best.  For one thing, there is the paradox of the false positive.  The system is intended to seek out those with "malintent."  Really, that would include a great many of us...and we need not be terrorists by any stretch of the imagination.  Take the airport example.  Someone in line for the gate could show all of the indicators that the Minority Report software is searching for but is exhibiting them because he/she just embezzled an enormous sum of cash from their employer and is skipping town with it.  Illegal, true, but by no means a terrorist act.  Someone could be on their way to meet up with a man/woman they are having an affair with or have met online for said same purpose.  Heck, it could be an ornery preschooler.  All of these examples would, according to the parameters given, be enough to flag the individual as "potential terrorist."  All of this is to place a fard over the problem and further muddy the waters.

I know, I know.  "Even if we only catch one, it's worth it."  What that phrase neglects to consider are the vast amount of security resources that go into investigating a false positive.  As someone who volunteers with their local police, I can attest to this.  Statistically, the odds are not on the side of this kind of technology.  

So, in the words of Sting, "how can I save my little boy from Oppenheimer's deadly toy?"  Yes, my "little boy" has four legs, a lot of hair, and a speech impediment but he is no less my son.  What will mitigate the odds of a future nuclear attack?

A system that is...I would hope...superior to FAST.

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