Protecting the Homeland: the Terrorists' Target List

Longtime readers of GM/BM will remember [this post][homeland], where I discussed the formula used by the Department of Homeland Security for allocating anti-terrorism funds. At the time, I explained:
>It turns out that the allocation method was remarkably simple. In their
>applications for funding, cities listed assets that they needed to protect.
>What DHS did was take the number of listed assets from all of the cities that
>were going to be recipients of funds, and give each city an amount of funding
>proportional to the number of assets they listed.
>So, the Empire State building is equal to the neighborhood bank in Omaha. The
>stock exchange on Wall Street is equal to the memorial park in Anchorage,
>Alaska. Mount Sinai hospital is equal to the county hospital in the suburbs of
>Toledo, Ohio. The New York subway system (18.5 billion passenger-miles per
>year) is equal to the Minneapolis transit system (283 million passenger-miles
>per year). The Brooklyn Bridge is equal the George Street bridge in New
>Brunswick, NJ.
Well, according to the [New York Times][nyt] (login required), it appears that I gave *too much credit* to the DHS. They weren’t saying that, for example, Wall Street was equivalent to the memorial park in Anchorage. What they were saying is that the Wall Street stock exchange is equivalent to the Mule Day Parade in Columbia Tenessee; Mt. Sinai hospital is equivalent to an unnamed Donut Shop; the Macy’s thanksgiving parade is equivalent to the Bean Fest in Mountain View, Arkansas.
Questioned about the foolishness of this insane list, a DHS spokesperson responded “We don’t find it embarrassing, the list is a valuable tool.”
Don’t you feel safer now that you know how the government is using what they keep stressing is *your money* to protect you?

0 thoughts on “Protecting the Homeland: the Terrorists' Target List

  1. Blake Stacey

    The final three paragraphs are priceless:

    One business owner who learned from a reporter that a company named Amish Country Popcorn was on the list was at first puzzled. The businessman, Brian Lehman, said he owned the only operation in the country with that name.
    “I am out in the middle of nowhere,” said Mr. Lehman, whose business in Berne, Ind., has five employees and grows and distributes popcorn. “We are nothing but a bunch of Amish buggies and tractors out here. No one would care.”
    But on second thought, he came up with an explanation: “Maybe because popcorn explodes?”

    See? I’m sure there’s a science lesson in that — surface-area-to-volume ratios, etc.

  2. VJ

    So Indiana, once labeled the state with most prosaic name, has almost three times the number of targets as California, almost twice that of NY. New license plate motto–‘Indiana, the Target-Rich State’

  3. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    I got so angry reading that article that I didn’t make it all the way to the end, and missed that gem. Obviously, the Times reporter was as annoyed at this as I was. 🙂

  4. jre

    Our government’s command of the math relevant to the GWOTTM fails to impress on many levels.
    Here’s a gem from Bruce Schneier on terrorism, data mining and Bayes’ theorem.
    The scariest part is that, as is pointed out in the comments, individuals at NSA surely understand the math, and know that their organization is committed to a doomed project, but it goes forward anyway.

  5. Blake Stacey

    That’s an interesting essay on Bayes’ theorem and data mining. I had actually thought of the same thing, finding terrorists as an example of the False Positive Paradox, but apparently this other fellow wrote it up before I could. Serves me right.
    The comment thread is entertaining, in an entropic sort of way. To my eye, it appears plagued with misunderstandings, mostly due to shoddy grasps of statistics. I imagine that by now, any major participant in that discussion will have irrevocably fixed their views such that no amount of rational argument can perturb them. The discourse didn’t take very long to degenerate into appeals to authority/anecdotal evidence (“I can’t tell you what I do, but this works for me”) and waving the flag of “social network theory”.
    Reading those comments is a bit like watching the Monty Hall Paradox be born, all over again.

  6. Koray

    When I saw that article on Schneier’s blog, I thought of sending it to GMBM (yes, the comments over there are absolutely horrible), but I forgot about it.
    I do understand the level of aggression necessary for programs like this at NSA, though. You can’t wait for good data to appear; you grasp at everything. Now, taking the results seriously is a different story.

  7. gravitybear

    Wait a minute… Minneapolis has a transit system?
    I’ve lived here all my life (actually in St Paul for the last 10) and I haven’t really noticed.
    I’m hoping the light rail connecting Mpls and St Paul actually gets built.


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