The problem with too much information

Governments like to have as much surveillance as possible of the people because it gives them greater control. It is often argued by them that this information is necessary in order for them to provide better security, and the debate becomes one where the desire for security has to be balanced by the desire of ordinary people to live their lives free from government snooping. The one case where the debate has swung overwhelmingly in favor of the government is when it says it is investigating terrorists. People have become so spooked by the idea of terrorists in their midst that they seem to be willing to grant carte blanche to the government to do whatever it likes to combat any threat. But this license can result in heavy costs to the individuals who happen, for whatever reason, to fall into the government’s crosshairs.

I have written before about how many of the highly publicized press conferences where the intelligence services claim to have identified terror plots and prevented them and arrested the alleged plotters. These people are usually lonely young men with few friends, no jobs, and few prospects. Many of these cases turn out to be where government informants identified people who had somewhat vague intentions and then pretty much led them on to make the plans more elaborate and give them the means to carry them out. By themselves, these people seemed unable to put together anything so elaborate. Why does the government resort to entrapment on such a wide scale?

Trevor Aronson writes about one such case of Harlem Suarez who is now serving a life sentence after being arrested with a fake bomb that had been supplied to him by the FBI

In 2015, seeing reports about the Islamic State on cable news, [Harlem] Suarez became intrigued by the terrorist group, he explained to an FBI informant. He was 23 years old at the time and still living in Key West.

His online activity attracted the FBI’s attention, and an agent in Miami asked a rookie informant named Mohammed Skaik to help determine if Suarez might be a threat.

Following FBI instructions, Skaik sent Suarez a Facebook friend request. “Hey, brother, can you add me, please?” Skaik wrote. “I have something extremely important to communicate to you.”

SKAIK INTRODUCED THE young man to two undercover agents who played the parts of hardened ISIS members. One claimed to be military-trained; the other said he was a professional bomb maker. Suarez, who realized too late that he was playing with fire in exploring his naive curiosity about ISIS, tried to back out in passive ways, the FBI’s evidence showed. He didn’t return calls and was consistently hard to reach. When the FBI agents asked for money to build a bomb, Suarez claimed to be broke, though he would later say he had $4,000 in the bank. Instead of participating in a bomb plot on the Fourth of July holiday, as he’d discussed with undercover agents, Suarez dodged their calls and instead went out drinking in Key West.

While Suarez had some weapons of his own, he was also clueless about terrorist groups in general and did not seem to know how to communicate with them. Aronson described why the FBI then proceeded to entrap him.

Suarez presented a conundrum for the FBI. He said he wanted to join ISIS, even though his understanding of the group and its religion was rudimentary. He was actively looking for likeminded people, even though he admitted he wasn’t finding any. He had body armor vests, even though he didn’t have the armored plates that slip inside. He had weapons, including an assault rifle, even though he admitted he didn’t have much ammunition.

“What would you do in a situation like that?” said Peter Ahearn, a retired FBI special agent who headed the field office in Buffalo, New York. “Would you want to be the agent who let this guy go, and then you find out later that he killed people in some attack?”

And there lies the problem. As the US intelligence services scour the internet for potential threats, they are bound to come across many, many people like Suarez, disgruntled people who have vague ideas of carrying out some kind of dramatic act of violence. What do you do then with this information? You cannot arrest them just for having violent thoughts. Keeping close tabs on all such people over a long time to see if they have the means and intentions to carry out an actual attack and actually set a process in motion would require enormous resources. But to drop the surveillance and not do anything leaves the FBI and other intelligence services vulnerable to criticism if even one of those people later commits a violent crime and it turns out that he had been in their databases at one time as a possible threat.

So the FBI sets about entrapping these people and putting them in jail, since that effectively closes the case. But this also results in people who, without the FBI’s help and support may have never actually advanced their plans beyond fantasies, end up serving long prison sentences on terrorism charges. And what is worse, we know that prisons are breeding grounds for actual violent criminals so in prison, these people may well become embittered and radicalized and more dangerous when they are finally released.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    If you’re the kind of person who can be entrapped, then I say go directly to jail. You’re absolutely right that it’s not cost effective to simply surveil these people 24/7 just in case, and it’s unconscionable to simply ignore them once you’re aware of them as a risk. What else is there to do but check them out? Provoke them until they do something actionable? And if they don’t -- everyone’s a winner. Seems like win/win to me. If you’re the kind of person who can be persuaded to take possession of what you think is a bomb, everyone is safer with you off the streets.

    As for them being more dangerous when they’re released, there’s a simple (if expensive) solution to that one, too.

    I’m sure Marcus Ranum will be along shortly to point out that the real problem with “too much information” is that it all gets saved forever, and the security forces have access to this “retroscope” to allow them to sift your history (email, phone records, internet searches, movements) for dodgy activity, so they can fit you up for things months or years after the event. That’s a real threat to the civil rights of generally law abiding people. Cry me a river for dangerous dupes like Suarez.

  2. Roj Blake says

    You are no son of mine.

    We are constantly told that the Islamists recruit from this same labour pool as the FBI is using. Is there a difference? I don’t think so.

    Are freedoms were hard one, often at great sacrifice by others so why are the beneficiaries of that freedom so quick to throw it away?

    This action of the FBI and other security agencies makes me feel far more afraid thana nutter with a bomb. This is a calculated attempt to impinge on liberty in the name of protecting it.

    Harlem Suarez is just another victim on the never ending War on Terror, the war with no enemy, no strategy and no end game in sight, just a constantly created state of fear.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Keeping close tabs on all such people over a long time … would require enormous resources.

    The NSA has such enormous resources. They should have little trouble in getting a warrant to monitor such persons, setting software to flag whatever clues indicate the subjects might have moved beyond the blathering-dumbass stage, and using them as bait for real terrorist recruiters (if any).

  4. Matt G says

    The activities of the FBI in these cases sound a lot the recruitment tactics of cults. Should people who confess to crimes be summarily convicted and jailed? We know full well people can be intimidated by an authority figure (cop, DA, etc.) into a false confession.

  5. sonofrojblake says

    I’m not quick to want to toss people in prison. The vast majority of the US’s scandalously huge prison population shouldn’t even be there. I’m just of the opinion that, once in there, particularly if it’s for something especially heinous, I’d be in no hurry to let them back out again while they’re still physically fit enough to pose a threat to others. Also: there’s nothing wrong with having prisoners do work. The UK allows (but AFAIK does not require) prisoners to work. Here’s the difference: they’re paid. Not much -- but they are paid, to demonstrate a link between productive contribution and reward. In the US, prisoners are explicitly slaves. If you can’t see anything wrong with that, I don’t think anything I can say will help.

    @lofty, 4: standard lack of any evidence or justification, right there. I did not say or even imply that these tactics should only be used against Muslims. That’s something in your head.

    @Pierce R. Butler, 5: you’ve been watching too many movies. The NSA does not have the enormous resources that would be required. In terms of raw numbers, the precise details are obviously classified, but most reliable sources I consulted put a hard ceiling on NSA employee numbers of 100,000, with estimates of their employees varying between 25,000 and 40,000. Obviously there are contractors as well, but even with them, you’re looking at, at most, maybe a quarter of a million people. Now consider that the US has a population of 350m, and the NSA (we’re told) doesn’t just surveil them. It monitors the comms of over a billion people. Now consider how many people you need to monitor just one person properly. Realistically, you need a team of people working in shifts, offline comms analysis and management. It would be hard to imagine effectively watching someone with a team of fewer than ten. Who do you target? How do you decide?

    You have a touching but misplaced faith in software. Time and again what the FBI/NSA’s software can do reliably is produced a breadcrumb trail showing how someone went about what they did, after the event. This is Marcus Ranum’s “retroscope”. What it can’t do with any reliability is what you’d like -- pick real suspicious behaviour out of the tsunami of information they are hoarding. If they could do that, 9/11 wouldn’t have happened.

    Should people who confess to crimes be summarily convicted and jailed?

    No. Obvs.

  6. lanir says

    Police catch criminals after crimes are committed. “Minority Report” is impossible to attain fiction. All the wishful thinking in the world does not change this simple cause and effect relationship. That retired agent is saying he’s afaid he’ll be held accountable if he does not perform this impossible feat because his bosses have successfully bilked the public into buying the current surveillance infrastructure. Which the public now expects to work just like “Minority Report” because that’s what they were told.

    The popular thinking around terrorism is just broken. For example, we’re afraid solo or small groups of maybe a dozen people with limited training and almost no gear or support will infiltrate our country from halfway around the world and bring it to it’s knees. Meanwhile we’ve had tens of thousands of soldiers in Afghanistan for 17 years with the best gear and logistical support we can manage and we’re losing. Someone compare these two ideas and figure out what we’re doing wrong?

  7. sonofrojblake says

    “Minority Report” is impossible to attain fiction

    Straw man. Nobody is expecting or even asking for “Minority Report”. We expect and ask that our security services detect and disrupt active planning, before the plans are carried out. And this is very far from unrealistic, it’s happening all the time. That’s why our statute books contain laws whose titles start with “Conspiracy to…”. What’s frustrating is that the pervasive surveillance apparatus operated by the NSA makes these efforts harder, not easier.

    Another thing that makes it harder for the US is that, in civilised countries, merely equipping yourself for a good rampage is a crime in itself. The IRA would have been a lot more successful at murdering small children and other innocents if they had a constitutionally guaranteed right to buy and openly carry combat weapons*. We don’t have a problem with Nazis marching in the streets with assault rifles because anyone who so much as tries to buy one, much less openly carry one down a street in public in daylight, would be put away.

    As for the ridiculous dichotomy posed in the second paragraph: I don’t know you. It’s depressingly possible you’re too young to remember that time fewer than two dozen people infiltrated your country from halfway around the world and brought it to its knees with little more than a boxcutter knife and a pilot’s licence each. That’s a thing that happened. It is unrelated to the historically reliable advice “Never get involved in a land war in Asia”, which the US seems determined to keep proving right.

    *Finish with a gag: why do the Irish dance like this? (Does vague impression of Michael Flatly Riverdancing). Because they’ve had their arms decommissioned.

  8. sonofrojblake says

    entrapment is fine, they’re all guilty

    Wut? “Entrapment” isn’t a term referring to something the police or other agents do. “Entrapment” is a defence. The substance of the defence is that the accused does not deny committing the crime, but holds that they only did so because an agent of the state encouraged or aided them to do so. That determination is for a jury to make, based on their assessment of the conduct of the agent(s) and the state of mind of the (admitted) perpetrator. If I were on a jury, it’s a high hurdle. “I didn’t do it” is a defence I’ll listen to. “I only did it because he told me to” is something you should have grown out of by age ten.

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