"False positives" in the fight against terrorism

Security consultant Bruce Schneier writes regarding the trade offs one has to make in security when dealing with terrorists:

Security systems fail in two different ways. The first is the obvious one: they fail to detect, stop, catch, or whatever, the bad guys. The second is more common, and often more important: they wrongly detect, stop, catch, or whatever, an innocent person. This story is from the New Zealand Herald:

A New Zealand resident who sent $5000 to his ill uncle in India had the money frozen for nearly a month because his name matched that of several men on a terrorist watch list.

Because there are far more innocent people than guilty ones, this second type of error is far more common than the first type. Security is always a trade-off, and when you’re trading off positives and negatives, you have to look at these sorts of things.

It is for reasons such as this that one should be very wary of weakening rules such as the presumption of innocence, the right to silence and the prohibition of double jeopardy in order to make it easier to jail those suspected of crime or terrorism. These rules were put in place for very sound reasons. Get any changes to them wrong and the impact is likely to be felt mostly by the innocent. A safer strategy is to bolster the investigative powers and the resources available to the police and security agencies dealing with these problems.

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On FoIA and the security services’ role

An anonymous commenter has made an interesting point in response to my discussion of the impact of the Freedom of Information Act on the security services. Responding to the point that the processing of any FoIA request will draw resources away from the security services’ core duty of protecting the country, the commenter writes:

Not so – in the extreme case that the government itself becomes an enemy of the country, time spent by the security services documenting their activities for the public *becomes* their core duty.(Colour, boldface and italics added)

Of course there is also the option of the security services using their more secretive powers to undermine or overthrow the govt in such circumstances. Either way, the scenario posited would be very dangerous territory to be in and would require considerable bravery and intelligence to deal with.

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