Why Is a Terrorist Like SPAM?

President Obama said that there were “systemic and human failures” that prevented the government from stopping Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempted terror attack. A lot of the talk has been about watch lists and information not being shared amongst agencies.

But why is a terrorist like SPAM?

  • There seem to be more of them every day
  • You miss some which are bad
  • You flag some which are good

While politicians are posturing, a lot of US citizens are wondering what’s so hard about catching terrorists. I mean, it’s obvious when you see one, right? But while SPAM isn’t as deadly as a terrorist, SPAM filtering provides a good comparison for why we cannot keep out 100% of the bad guys while not bothering the good guys. Most likely your Internet Service Provider (ISP) runs a SPAM filter to prevent messages from getting to your PC. And your PC email program probably has a local SPAM filter which moves SPAM email from your Inbox to a SPAM folder.

I am guessing that you scan your SPAM folder a couple times a day looking for legitimate emails which somehow got filtered and you also get ticked off when you see a SPAM email in your Inbox. If someone has ever called you to find out why you didn’t answer their email and you said that you never received it, chances are that your ISP deleted the email as SPAM and it never reached you. If a legitimate email is stopped at the ISP or winds up in your SPAM folder, this is called a false positive and means that a good email was treated as if it were SPAM. This would be like the TSA doing an extra security check on a person who is not a threat.

On the other hand, if a SPAM email winds up in your Inbox, this is called a false negative because it was treated as if is were legitimate, just like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab being allowed on an airplane.

It’s A Trade Off

Security, like your SPAM filter, is a trade off. It is near impossible to get it just right. You are either too tight (lots of false positives) or too loose (lots of false negatives). The only way to prevent every single SPAM email from showing up in your Inbox, or prevent any terrorist from getting on an airplane is to prevent any email from showing up in your Inbox or not allowing anyone to get on an airplane. While you will never hear a politician say it, there is no such thing as 100% security. Even the strictest police states on the face of the earth, Nazi Germany and later on East Germany, couldn’t achieve 100% security. Witness the French Underground and the number of people who managed to escape to the West.

According to March 2009 article in USA Today, the government’s terrorist watch list has hit 1 million entries, up 32% since 2007. Federal data show the rise comes despite the removal of 33,000 entries last year by the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center in an effort to purge the list of outdated information and remove people cleared in investigations. Each entry on this list is similar to an entry in a SPAM filter. Every time an email comes in for you, the sender is checked to see if it is on the black list and if it is, the email is deleted. The problem is that innocent senders and innocent people can wind up on the list either because their name is similar to someone else’s or by mistake (how did Senator Ted Kennedy ever get on the list? We’ll never know).

Do The Best You Can

I have worked with a lot of FBI agents and found them to be dedicated, hard working individuals. Each of them believes that they are on the front lines protecting US Citizens and take their job seriously. But you still need to remember that security is a trade off. Unless you want to lose any semblance of liberty, privacy, and civil rights, you cannot have 100% security. Even the Israelis know this. When a bomb goes off they tend to the dead and injured, clean up the mess, and are back in business in a few hours.

Bad stuff happens, and all of it cannot be stopped. While the system let Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab get on the plane, the system also worked through the quick action of a single person who was aware of his surroundings. What were Abdulmutallab’s seat mates doing, that someone had to jump over a row of people to get to him?

In 1698, Algernon Sydney stated that, “God helps those who help themselves.” Even John F. Kennedy told us, “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” So ask not how your country can protect you 100% of the time, but ask what you need to do to help protect yourself and your country. And don’t just pray to God for help, take action to help yourself. Be like Jasper Schuringa – aware of your surroundings and ready to take action. Only you can protect yourself and those around you.

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