Last week, LIRNEasia taught a course on broadband policy and regulation in Sohna. One of the modules was on privacy and surveillance. One of the instructors was Sunil Abraham, acknowledged for his thoughtful and creative approach to sticky ICT policy questions. Drawing a diagram, he pointed out that if surveillance was exclusively focused on the small percentage, perhaps five percent, of people who were engaged in terrorism or other bad acts, law enforcement would be more efficient and the liberties enjoyed by the non-terroristically inclined majority would be that much safer.
On the face, a beguiling proposition.
But one BIG problem. The solution depends on ALL the potential terrorists being included in the defined subset and NONE being included in the excluded-from-surveillance subset. How can this be ensured, when in fact the terroristically inclined have every incentive in the world to get themselves included in the excluded subset.
This is the classic 80:20 problem, experienced by all sorts of entities, including bookshops. Eighty percent of the customers tend to buy 20 percent of the titles, more or less. A most efficient bookshop would carry only the 20 percent. But the problem is that it’s very very difficult to know beforehand what constitutes the 20 percent. This problem explains the sterility of most airport bookshops.
That is for something innocuous like books. The challenge with regard to surveillance is much harder. We are dealing with people like David Headley, whose modus operandi is to look completely different to a terrorist. Current surveillance failed to catch Headley, so I am not praising it while criticizing Sunil’s solution. But I am saying that we need to think through this problem keeping people like Headley in mind.