Be skeptical when analyzing security technology

Robert Gellman

There is a joke about a driver who lost his keys on the street one night. As he rummaged around on the ground in a pool of light from a street lamp, a friend offered to help and asked where he thought the keys were lost.

The driver pointed up the street to a dark area. Confused, the friend asked why the driver was searching here and not there. He replied, 'Because the light is better here.'

In considering the responses to the events of Sept. 11, I am constantly reminded of this joke. People are searching for something to do, but they are too often searching in their own lighted area rather than where they are more likely to find reasoned responses.

The people who make facial-recognition software offer a solution. Whether facial recognition actually works or is applicable to terrorist threats is an open question. Also, no one has proposed a coherent system for getting the information to fuel a facial imaging system or building a response system to catch the people such a system would flag.

Suppose there is one terrorist for every 10 million faces. A system capable of 99.99 percent accuracy would yield 1,000 false positives for every terrorist. How could the country possibly tolerate that? I thank Bruce Schneier from Counterpane Internet Security Inc. of Cupertino, Calif., for those numbers. By the way, his newsletter on computer and network security is worth reading at www.counterpane.com/crypto-gram.html.

Sales managers are pushing smart cards as a security solution. Someone else says we need a national identification card. Yet no one has described the infrastructure needed to give every American resident, let alone visitors, a verified, counterfeit-proof card that would identify terrorists. Isn't it possible that someone with an ID card will still be a threat?

A supporter of electronic medical records says that the United States needs an electronic medical record system to find the blood types of people injured in terrorist acts. Maybe I missed it, but I didn't hear that blood-typing was even a problem or that an electronic system would be accessible or reliable in a disaster. There may be reasons to spend hundreds of billions of dollars for electronic medical records, but terrorism isn't one of them.

Some are closing down information sources on the Internet because data might be useful to terrorists. Information useful to terrorists can be found everywhere. We can't close it all down. We need information media to live our lives and conduct business. Are we going to take airline schedules off the Net because terrorists used them?

I don't pretend to have the answers to the problems that we face today. But I do believe mindless applications of technology and more fake security won't help. Indeed, they will only undermine public support in the long run.

We need more rationality in evaluating problems and devising responses. t's impossible to eliminate all risk from modern life. The unfortunate truth is that we couldn't afford to do so even if it were possible.

If we have learned anything from technology in recent decades, it is that we rarely end up with what we thought we were buying.

Robert Gellman is a Washington privacy and information policy consultant. E-mail him at rgellman@cais.com.

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