Archive for the ‘Wanktanks’ Category

Well, this is hardly surprising; the FBI was in the habit of pretending to be on a terrorism case every time they wanted telecoms traffic data. Their greed for call-detail records is truly impressive. Slurp! Unsurprisingly, the lust for CDRs and the telcos’ eagerness to shovel them in rapidly got the better of their communications analysis unit’s capacity to crunch them.

Meanwhile, Leah Farrell wonders about the problems of investigating “edge-of-network” connections. Obviously, these are going to be the interesting ones. Let’s have a toy model; if you dump the CDRs for a group of suspects, 10 men in Bradford, and pour them into a visualisation tool, the bulk of the connections on the social network graph will be between the terrorists themselves, which is only of interest for what it tells you about the group dynamics. There will be somebody who gets a lot of calls from the others, and they will probably be important; but as I say, most of the connections will be between members of the group because that’s what the word “group” means. If the likelihood of any given link in the network being internal to it isn’t very high, then you’re not dealing with anything that could be meaningfully described as a group.

By definition, though, if you’re trying to find other terrorists, they will be at the edge of this network; if they weren’t, they’d either be in it already, or else they would be multiple hops away, not yet visible. So, any hope of using this data to map the concealed network further must begin at the edge of the sub-network we know about. And the principle that the ability to improve a design occurs primarily at the interfaces – this is also the prime location for screwing it up also points this way.

But there’s a really huge problem here. The modelling assumptions are that a group is defined by being significantly more likely to communicate among itself than with any other subset of the phone book, that the group is small relative to the world around it, and that it is boring; everyone has roughly similar phoning behaviour, and therefore who they call is the question that matters. I think these are reasonable.

The problem is that it’s exactly at the edge of the network that the numbers of possible connections start to curve upwards, and that the density of suspects in the population falls. Some more assumptions; an average node talks to x others, with calls being distributed among them on a well-behaved curve. Therefore, the set of possibilities is multiplied by x for each link you follow outwards; even if you pick the top 10% of the calling distribution, you’re going to fall off the edge as the false positives pile up. After three hops and x=8, we’re looking at 512 contacts from the top 10% of the calling distribution alone.

In fact, it’s probably foolish to assume that suspects would be in the top 10% of the distribution; most people have mothers, jobs, and the like, and you also have to imagine that the other side would deliberately try to minimise their phoning or, more subtly, to flatten the distribution by splitting their communications over a lot of different phone numbers. Actually, one flag of suspicion might be people who were closely associated by other evidence who never called each other, but the false positive rate for that would be so high that it’s only realistically going to be hindsight.

Conclusions? The whole project of big-scale database-driven social network analysis is based on the wrong assumptions, which are drawn either from military signals intelligence or from classical policing. Military traffic analysis works because it assumes that the available signals are a subset of a much bigger total, and that this total is large compared to the world. This makes sense because that’s what the battlefield of electronic warfare is meant to look like – cleared of civilian activity, dominated by one side or the other’s military traffic. Working from the subset of enemy traffic that gets captured, it’s possible to infer quite a lot about the system it belongs to.

Police investigation works because it limits the search space and proceeds along multiple lines of enquiry; rather than pulling CDRs and assuming the three commonest numbers must be suspects, it looks for suspects based on the witness and forensic evidence of the case, and then uses other sources of data to corroborate or refute suspicion.

To summarise, traffic analysis works on the assumption that there is an army out there. We can only see part of it, but we can make inferences about the rest because we know there is an army. Police investigation works on the observation that there has been a crime, and the assumption that probably, only a small number of people are possible suspects.

So, I’m a bit underwhelmed by projects like this. One thing that social network datamining does, undoubtedly, achieve is to create handsome data visualisations. But this is dangerous; it’s an opportunity to mistake beauty for truth. (And they will look great on a PowerPoint slide!)

Another, more insidious, more sinister one is to reinforce the assumptions we went into the exercise with. Traffic-analysis methodology will produce patterns; our brains love patterns. But the surge of false positives means that once you get past the first couple of hops, essentially everything you see will be a false positive result. If you’ve already primed your mind with the idea that there is a sinister network of subversives everywhere, techniques like this will convince you even further.

Unconsciously, this may even be the purpose of the exercise – the latent content of Evan Kohlmann. At the levels of numbers found in telco billing systems, everyone will eventually be a suspect if you just traverse enough links.

Which reminded me of Evelyn Waugh, specifically the Sword of Honour trilogy. Here’s his comic counterintelligence officer, Colonel Grace-Groundling-Marchpole:

Colonel Marchpole’s department was so secret that it communicated only with the War Cabinet and the Chiefs of Staff. Colonel Marchpole kept his information until it was asked for. To date that had not occurred and he rejoiced under neglect. Premature examination of his files might ruin his private, undefined Plan. Somewhere, in the ultimate curlicues of his mind, there was a Plan.

Given time, given enough confidential material, he would succeed in knitting the entire quarrelsome world into a single net of conspiracy in which there were no antagonists, only millions of men working, unknown to one another, for the same end; and there would be no more war.

Want a positive idea? One reading of this and this would be that the failure of intelligence isn’t a failure to collect or analyse information about the world, or rather it is, but it is caused by a failure to collect and analyse information about ourselves.

How could I forget this?

The Obscurer‘s coverage of the Undabomber has been marked by one man. Here he is:

Peter Hoekstra, the senior Republican on the House intelligence committee, said it was examining Mutallab’s links with the radical Yemeni imam, Anwar al-Awlaki, who has inspired a number of terrorists.

Awlaki had contacts with Major Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist who is accused of carrying out the massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, in November in which 13 people were murdered. According to government officials, Awlaki was also the spiritual adviser to two of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, while he was an imam at a mosque in northern Virginia. The FBI investigated him in 1999 and 2000, believing him to be a possible procurement agent for Osama bin Laden.

In Toronto, a terror cell watched videos of Awlaki at a makeshift training camp where an attack was planned on the Canadian parliament and prime minister. “He’s a star attraction as a recruiter to young Americans and Canadians,” one former American intelligence official told the US media.

This month, in an interview with Al Jazeera, Awlaki expressed surprise that the US military had failed to uncover Hasan’s plan, to which he gave his backing. “My support to the operation was because the operation brother Nidal carried out was a courageous one, and I endeavoured to explain my position regarding what happened because many Islamic organisations and preachers in the west condemned the operation,” he said.

Awlaki left the US and moved to Yemen in 2002 where he established an English-language website that has thousands of followers around the world. In January 2009, he published an online essay, 44 Ways to Support Jihad, in which he asserts that all Muslims must participate in jihad, whether in person, by funding mujahideen or by fighting the west.

There’s something missing here…can you spot it?

Concerns about his influence in the UK have been expressed by experts on community cohesion. In August, the Observer reported anger that Awlaki was due to speak via a video link at Kensington town hall. The broadcast was dropped after the local council stepped in. He has also been invited to give talks via video link at several London universities. “Mutallab is the latest in a long list of terrorists [Awlaki] has inspired and encouraged,” said Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens of the Centre for Social Cohesion.

“The preacher has long been a highly respected figure within a number of British university Islamic societies because, unlike most other radical preachers, Awlaki speaks English as a first language, and being born and raised in America has given him a good understanding of western culture. This makes him very appealing to young western Muslims.”

Meleagrou-Hitchens called for British universities to increase their vigilance. “This incident should act as a wake-up call to university authorities,” he said. “It is crucial that they now accept the central role they must play in resisting extremists and preventing student groups from promoting hate preachers.”

Did you spot it? The Obscurer didn’t actually say that he had any connection with the pants bomber. They didn’t even quote Hoekstra saying so – and Hoekstra is a comedy rightwing buffoon anyway. They didn’t adduce any evidence of his connections with him in any way – just cut straight to Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens. Whose kid are you?

Oh, right. He’s “worked” for Standpoint, the Centre for Social Cohesion, Policy Exchange, and the Henry Jackson Society. I think he gets a free cup of coffee and 200 air miles if he can punch another content-free wanktank funded by the Tories’ neocon wing on his loyalty card.

PolEx’s Web site has an “Alumni” page, but mysteriously it bears no trace of him. Google, however, knows:

He has also worked at the Stanford University based think tank, the Hoover Institution for War, Revolution and Peace, and the Washington DC based think tank, Foundation for Defence of Democracies (FDD).

He holds an MA in International Relations from Brunel University, and a BA in Classics from King’s College London.

Alexander researched for publications providing policy recommendations on creating a robust defence against the threat of terrorism in the UK and abroad.

FDD as well! Free cuppa for you! There is, of course, no suggestion of or link to any work on terrorism he ever did.

Today, he’s in the Obscurer again. Let’s roll the tape.

Recordings of Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaida sympathiser who is believed to have inspired Abdulmutallab in Yemen, can be bought through British-based websites and bookshops. Three shops in London and Manchester were contacted by this newspaper last week. Staff said they could sell DVDs of the speeches by the cleric, who is banned from the UK.

As recently as last April, students at London’s City University Islamic Society’s annual dinner were invited to hear the words of al-Awlaki being broadcast live into Britain.

So why is he “believed” to have inspired pants boy? Where is the evidence? It’s not even the electioneering torture fan Hoekstra this time.

Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, a research fellow for the think-tank the Centre for Social Cohesion,

For it is he.

said that al-Awlaki has become an increasingly influential figure. “For well over a year now, organisations such as ours have repeatedly warned about the dangerous influence of this man, with most of our warnings falling on deaf ears,” he said.

Call now and buy your anti-terrorist water ioniser – 20 per cent off before the end of this broadcast! And don’t forget to donate now and claim Gift Aid!

“They had no objection to his giving a video sermon to a gathering at Kensington and Chelsea town hall. We are also often told that, although al-Awlaki’s views may be unsavoury, he has never been convicted of any crime. Clearly, this excuse is simply not good enough.”

The excuse that he hasn’t done anything wrong.

Further, Hitchens Minor seems to be missing someone in his laudable crusade on the home front. I refer, of course, to the current and past tenants of Kensington & Chelsea Town Hall, or in other words, the Conservative Party in London. Could this perhaps have something to do with the fact that his boss at Policy Exchange is now the Conservative Mayor of London’s director of policy?

Whilst we’re on the subject, a couple of other terrorism things. Kingpin of Comedy Gladio, intimate of Patrick Mercer MP, and self-made spy Glen Jenvey has been arrested, ironically on charges of inciting hatred against Jews. He’s finally convinced somebody that he’s a real jihadi! Not that he’s likely to convince anyone else of anything at all…except Tories. The government must, indeed, look at these coincidences!

Meanwhile, in this season of prodigies, Ed Husain astonishingly says something quite sensible.

In both Britain and America demands for profiling all Muslims at airports are increasing in volume. This mindset not only fails to understand that most Muslims around the world detest al-Qaeda, but this outlook also cannot comprehend how terrorists are always one step ahead of the game. If it is Muslim-sounding names that are to be stopped, would a name like Richard Reid – the infamous shoe bomber – have been detected? If it is Asian men that are to be stopped, then we will see an increase in white men recruited for terror?

After all, al-Qaeda’s English spokesperson is Adam Gadahn, a white American. If it is men who are stopped, we will see women terrorists emerge. Let us not forget Palestinian groups’ repeated use of single women as suicide bombers. Do not underestimate the power of terrorists to recruit serving airline pilots and other aviation personnel. Where there is a will, there will always be a way.

The profiling of ordinary Muslims not only opens other avenues for al-Qaeda, but results in the harassment and potential loss of support from the very people we need on our side to contain al-Qaeda: ordinary Muslims.

He also spends quite a lot of time romanticising Sufism, retailing whines about Obama bowing to the Saudi king, and saying things like this:

Nearly a decade after 9/11, when compared with military budgets, where is investment in these soft-power, counter radicalisation projects? The silence says it all.

Indeed it does, indeed it does. Strangely, he didn’t include a PayPal DONATE button. But it’s a start, I suppose, and we should reward good behaviour when we see it, even from the wanktank community. We Are Reasonable People, after all.

Someone who isn’t reasonable, however, is Con Coughlin:

It is easy to imagine that the authorities at UCL took quiet pride in the fact that they had a radical Nigerian Muslim running their Islamic Society. You can’t get more politically correct than that? They would therefore have had little interest in monitoring whether he was using a British university campus as a recruiting ground for al-Qaeda terrorists such as himself. The authorities at UCL should hang their heads in shame – or better than that, perhaps they should resign?

It may be easy to imagine that, but what are your offensive imaginings doing in something that claims to be a newspaper? Good job you only imagined it or else you could have been sued. It’s a bit like adumbrating that way.

Did Con Coughlin, perhaps, imagine the story about those Iraqi chemical weapons that he reckoned would fit on RPGs and be issued to air defence personnel so they could be launched in 45 minutes? The truth was considerably worse than that.

CCC vs Wanktanks

Other people’s TDLs. I note that this year’s CCC has devoted some time to the wanktank phenomenon in Germany, and also elsewhere. Volker Bilk’s slides are here; it makes a lot of sense, but there’s quite a bit of German philosophical maundering in there, and I’d have liked to see more case studies/howtos. As far as his call to action to map the wanktanks goes, I fully agree.

In other CCC presentations, it looks like there’s going to be a lot of GSM hacking in 2010. See here, here and here.