Lone Wolves, Black Swans, and a Surveillance Llama – 20 December 2013

So, yesterday two murderers who murdered someone in plain view of video cameras, CCTV and a good number of shocked passers-by were convicted of having done just that. British law showed itself to not be a banana. But the commentary that immediately followed this most open-and-shut case focused upon (as always) whether the policing and security agencies had somehow missed a trick; just as they did around the Norwegian lone-wolf atrocity too.

Our zero tolerance for attacks is of course founded on our individual desire not to be caught up in such an event, and the way that we secure this is to make sure that it doesn’t happen to others either. All of that seems perfectly rational to me.

But in this seasonal time of gift giving (and the Snowden / NSA story is the gift that refuses to stop giving) are the problems of identifying, containing and rolling back lone wolves and surveillance connected? Or are lone wolves the stuff of Taleb’s black swans?

The immediate commentariat last night pointed out the following (and it will only be in time that we know if this is accurate or not, more precisely whether there is an evidential underpinning for these assertions):

  • Only one text message was exchanged between the two assailants, so not a developed pattern of signals to intercept.
  • That radicalisation occurred over a long period – some 10years or so – and thus if one was looking to a pattern from these two it was not towards the sudden cachophony of violence that then came forth. As one of my students quite wisely put it, perhaps the choice we make is about where we set the bar for more intrusive levels of interaction – speech acts might be enough, so long as we’re happy to resource it. Peter Neumann (of this KCL parish) made the very good point on Channel 4 news that there is no formula for this radicalisation. The 7/7 bombers also had 10year pre-event histories, whilst others might go live in a matter of months. The precise mechanism or transition from radicalisation to violence is simply not known, or not well enough known.
  • That they were known associates of known radical voices – so, again a targeted widening of the net, with all the resource implications that come with it.
  • That one of them had mental health problems, from adolescence, whilst the other had a long history of gang membership and low-level but reasonably intensive violence in their day to day lives. But it’s an easy and slippery narrative to say ‘ah, they were just mentally ill and maladjusted’ because the consequences of those thoughts and those actions are disproportionate. This would have a poor public policy outcome.

So, the radicalised lone wolf is a tricky character. If these two had avoided being arrested overseas they would have been loud and radical voices in a crowd. That would make them difficult to priortise – certainly from an outside perspective. But the dovetail into the NSA surveillance stories, is that one of the utilities of these techniques (which have also now run into legal problems via the 4th Amendment) is that they both highlight relationship details within degrees of separation, which would have been relevant here, and that they are capable of tracking worrying/dangerous narratives (eg narratives that lead to actual violence). So, that they did not work in this instance does not mean that they do not work. The transparency called for in the open letter from the internet giants (see here) should be around whether this kind of mass data approach is effective in picking up actively dangerous radicals (eg those capable of inflicting physical harm). Because that’s a risk assessment dialogue that the public and the relevant governments have not had.

Governments have assumed that the public is entirely intolerant of intelligence failure (which has become synomyised with attacks taking place), and that the technology was available to tackle some of these issues. Running alongside this is that the technology was ‘usefully’ outstripping the pace of the legal and political frameworks in place.

So tying it all up is the need, I think, to discuss the range of threats or problems being tackled. Is it all about physical violence or upheaval, or is it also around managing the message. The limitations of the dragnet – eg on lone wolves – is also important to acknowledge. Yesterday saw a final piece of the jigsaw put in place around the murder of a decent family man and soldier. It also opened a tension between the perception of the all-seeing eye and the analogue threat of lone-wolves with easy to acquire weaponry.

Yesterday was a rare day of no winners and no clear positives

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