Americans are prone to cycles of belief in decline. The Founding Fathers worried about comparisons to the decline of the Roman republic. Moreover, cultural pessimism is very American, extending back to the country's Puritan roots. As Charles Dickens observed a century and a half ago, "if its individual citizens, to a man, are to be believed, [America] always is depressed, and always is stagnated, and always is in an alarming crisis, and never was otherwise.
Earlier this month the Pentagon announced a new effort to build a system aimed at allowing it to scan billions of communications in order to detect "anomalies" in people's behavior that will predict who is about to snap and turn into a homicidal maniac — or, perhaps, leak damaging documents to a reporter.
Citing the case of Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist charged with killing 13 people in Fort Hood, Texas, the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants to try to identify, before they happen, "malevolent actions" by insiders within the military. (See coverage by Wired, CNN, or Government Security News.)
The new project is called ADAMS, for Anomaly Detection at Multiple Scales, and anyone who remembers the battles over the Bush Administration's "Total Information Awareness" (TIA) program may be experiencing a major flashback right about now. TIA, also a DARPA project, was based on a vision of pulling together as much information as possible about as many people as possible into an "ultra-large-scale" database, making that information available to government officials, and sorting through it to try to identify terrorists. Eventually shut down by Congress, it was probably the closest thing to a truly comprehensive monitor-everyone "Big Brother" program that has ever been seriously contemplated in the United States. And many of the problems with TIA are equally present with this ADAMS project.
For one thing, the idea is naïve and misguided and it won't work. Statistical data mining has been found to be of limited use in some areas, such as in detecting credit card fraud. But as experts have said, data mining is not good at predicting highly unusual events, because it does not have a large body of examples it can use as a basis for identifying patterns. In fact, there are no patterns with some things. As my colleague Mike German often points out — and he used to work undercover on anti-terrorism cases for the FBI — empirical studies show that there is no such thing as a reliable profile that will predict violent behavior. Incidents in which people turn into homicidal maniacs and begin shooting up their offices are extremely rare and each one has unique origins in the individual psychology, circumstances and life history of the perpetrator.