Remember when the intelligence community of the United States was roundly criticized for not connecting the dots to anticipate 9/11? Read for example:
- Connecting The Dots
- September 11 and the Imperative of Reform in the U.S. Intelligence Community: Additional Views of Senator Richard C. Shelby , Vice Chairman, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence
They handcuff me (David Mery), hands behind my back, and take my rucksack out of my sight. They explain that this is for my safety, and that they are acting under the authority of the Terrorism Act. I am told that I am being stopped and searched because:
...The police decided that wearing a rain jacket, carrying a rucksack with a laptop inside, looking down at the steps while going into a tube station and checking your phone for messages just ticked too many boxes on their checklist and makes you a terrorist suspect...
- they found my behaviour suspicious from direct observation and then from watching me on the CCTV system;
- I went into the station without looking at the police officers at the entrance or by the gates;
- two other men entered the station at about the same time as me;
- I am wearing a jacket "too warm for the season";
- I am carrying a bulky rucksack, and kept my rucksack with me at all times;
- I looked at people coming on the platform;
- I played with my phone and then took a paper from inside my jacket.
The London Metro Police just connected the dots (ticked boxes in their checklist in this case), arrested an innocent computer enthusiast, and put him (and his girl friend) through hell!
You see, connecting the datapoints, simple as it may sound, is not quite that simple. First, there is the problem of deciding which dots are relevant, from the infinite collection of dots that one can observe. Is the color of his hair relevant for classifying Mr. Mery as a terrorist? Should one include in the boxes on the checklist the way he smiles and the gait of his walk? In the field of statistical pattern recognition, this step is known as attribute selection. Attribute selection is more a black art than science, where the notoriously unpredictable human behavior meets mathematics. Why not select every conceivable attribute? It's expensive, both monetarily and statistically, that's why. Collecting and processing the dots cost time and money and irrelevant dots cause statistical nightmares.
Once we have identified and collected the dots, the next step is to connect them. Early in my statistics courses, I learnt that there are infinite lines (technically, hyperplanes) that will connect the dots. You really don't need fancy statistics to tell you this, even simple geometry will do. Choosing the correct line from these infinite lines is akin to finding a needle in a haystack, probably worse. The exercise is error prone, and the best we can do is to minimize the error.
Finally, we need to cross the tees and draw the conclusions. Because the entire exercise is error prone, we should be careful in interpreting the findings and acting on them. Discretion must necessarily play a big part here, and one should allow for the possibility of egregious interpretation and action, with or without malicious intent. Discretion should only be given to those with the experience, wisdom, and humility to avoid even inadvertent transgressions on the fundamental liberties of individuals upon which so much of a civilized society rests.
If you had connected the dots in this journal by now, you would see where it's headed. Whatever the politicians might say, counter terrorism is complex and for the experts trained in psychology, statistics, and pattern recognition. The London Metro Police trained to keep law and order. To blame them for the David Mery fiasco is...well, almost like blaming the messenger. They were just following the instructions given to them. Someone gave them wrong instructions.