The Samovar


Insurance (and the ruthlessness of capitalism)
September 20, 2007, 11:11 pm
Filed under: Capitalism, Economics, Manifesto, Politics, Risk, Surveillance Society

Insurance. Not the most exciting of blog subjects, although that hasn’t stopped Michael Moore’s film Sicko from making $24m in the US alone. It is a subject that fascinates me though, for the simple reason that I don’t understand why people get insurance most of the time.

The nature of insurance is that on average you lose money by having it. It’s essentially just a gamble, and the bookie always weighs the odds against you. Now, there is a real reason to have insurance, which is in the case where you can’t afford the cost if the unlikely thing happens. Insuring your house against being burnt down is a good example of this. Most people can’t afford to rebuild their house from scratch if it gets burnt down.

The other end of the spectrum struck me when I bought a mobile phone a while ago. The salesman tried to persuade me to get insurance for it. Now, the insurance was £20 for one year, which on the face of it seems a fairly minimal cost for the satisfaction of knowing that if your phone is stolen you will get a nice new one. However, the phone only cost me £60, so for it to be worth my while getting that insurance, I’d have to have a 1/3 chance or more of losing that phone during the next year. Obviously a bad gamble. I didn’t get the insurance, and 5 years later the phone is still in my possession. Score £100 for me.

That mobile phone salesman made me realise that insurance is almost never worth having, because the consequences of a loss rarely justify the amount you end up spending on all the different forms of insurance. Take cars for instance. Now, you are legally obliged to have third party insurance, but anything beyond that is a total scam. If your car is stolen, you can buy a cheap replacement for a few hundred pounds. It won’t be flashy, but it will be functional. A few hundred pounds is often less than a single year’s insurance. Comprehensive insurance is even more of a scam, because you either have to have an enormous excess (which means you end up paying for most of the repairs yourself anyway), or you pay enormously high premiums. It gets more complicated, but the basic facts don’t change once you get into the arcanae of no claims bonuses, insuring your no claims bonuses, and the fact that even having insured your no claims bonuses making a claim will affect your premiums anyway. These points struck home with me when an old car of mine was stolen, and I realised (too late) that claiming for it was going to end up costing me more in increased premiums over the next few years than the amount they were paying out – by quite a lot.

So when is it worth having? Well, it’s worth having if you really can’t cover the costs of something going wrong: i.e. basically house insurance (but possibly not contents insurance), and, in the US, medical insurance. That brings me neatly on to my next point. I just saw Sicko the other day (recommended), and one of the points it makes very well is that US medical insurers will do anything they can to avoid paying out. In the event of an expensive claim (exactly the sort of claim that justifies having medical insurance in the first place), they will investigate everything about your claim. If you have ever said anything untruthful or inaccurate on an application form or on the phone to them, that will void your claim. If they can manage to persuade a doctor to rule that the treatment is too experimental or not guaranteed to work, they won’t pay out. And to ensure that they can persuade doctors to make these rulings, they pay bonuses to doctors proportionate to how many claims they reject. In other words, even when insurance really does matter (and with medical bills often in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in the US, it really matters) it might end up having been money wasted.

Now, finally I’d like to twist this into a rant about capitalism in general, because, you know, I like to rant about capitalism. It’s my thing.

This story about insurance being essentially a scam, an enormous rip off, and one that disproportionately affects the poorest, is a sort of microcosm of the ruthlessness of capitalism. Because poorer people can’t cover losses as much as richer people, they are more in need of insurance. Perversely, this means that they end up (quite rationally) spending more of their money on insurance than wealthier people.

A more recent development is social sorting, where poor people actually get larger premiums or bills precisely because they are poor. I’ve written about this before, here, here and here. This sort of thing just underlines the fact that the nature of capitalism is that the poor get poorer, and the rich get richer. Now, this has always been true of capitalism, but for a while it was masked. The introduction of the NHS and the welfare state in Britain made capitalism slightly more humane, but it is being undermined, even though the NHS and the welfare state still exist, because of social sorting.

The problem is that as companies know more and more about us, they can extract money from us ever more efficiently. Not only can they do this, but in a competitive market they must do it if they can, because otherwise someone else will. Exploitation of every source of profit isn’t a choice for a capitalist in a competitive free market, it’s a basic necessity. So, assuming that it is profitable for a company to, say, offer cheaper insurance to “intelligent” people, they will all have to start doing it. The logic of capitalism then undermines many of what we think of as social goods. We think it is bad that smart people should be given cheaper insurance than others, because it’s not fair, and also because smart people probably have more money; we think it’s bad that poor people should pay more for the same thing than rich people, but that’s not what’s going to happen because it doesn’t fit in with profit seeking.

Finally, to go back to insurance, the consequence of insurance companies having ever more accurate information about us, and being ever better at evaluating our individual risk levels, is that it becomes self defeating. If you can predict entirely accurately who is going to have a heart attack, then there cannot be medical insurance against having heart attacks. Someone who isn’t going to have one won’t pay because he isn’t going to have one, and someone who is going to have one is going to have to pay anyway so why bother giving extra money to the middle man. Insurance companies have to get better and better at predicting this sort of thing to stay profitable, but by doing so they bring about their own demise.

In this situation, the only thing to do is to have national insurance schemes organised by the state. The purpose is not to spread your own risk (you can’t change who you are, or your congenital risk of heart attack for example), but to spread the good and bad fortune of our circumstances out amongst everyone. In other words, in the long term, effective insurance cannot be provided by a capitalist system, and the alternatives available to us are ruthless capitalism which by its internal logic must get more and more ruthless to stay profitable, or some sort of socialism.

If you have got this far, well done, I’m impressed! and I thank you. Please do write a comment, if only to say you made it to the end. 😉



Giddens: more rhetoric
July 21, 2007, 2:14 pm
Filed under: Civil Liberties, Politics, Risk, Security, Surveillance Society, Terrorism

A while ago, Anthony Giddens wrote a piece on terrorism and security that I replied to rather light heartedly. Others wrote more serious replies – see my previous entry for links. Today he wrote a rather odd piece on CiF replying to comments on his last “dozen or so articles”. Obviously since he was replying to so much, his comments were little more than a reaffirmation of what he’d already said, but for what it’s worth, here’s my reply to what he said about terrorism and security.

Whatever some of the bloggers want, Brown won’t commit electoral suicide by lurching towards the traditional left. Moreover, he is correct not to do so.

It’s worth pointing out that terrorism and security is not a left/right political issue. Authoritarians and civil libertarians exist at all points on the left/right spectrum. This is just misdirection – a complete red herring.

For instance, he owes it to citizens to make sure that they are protected against the threat posed by global terrorism. As I said in my article on the subject – written well before the latest attacks…

I love it. As if the fact that some utterly hopeless incompetents entirely failed to carry out what would have been a rare terrorist attack with a fairly small number of casualties (a few days worth of traffic fatalities at most) supported his argument. As if one could draw conclusions about risk and probability from a singular event.

– the debate about security in relation to civil liberties hangs a great deal upon how serious one believes the threat actually is.

At first when reading this I thought it was odd that he understands that the case must be based on the actual threat given that his argument was based on hypothesis and supposition, but then I look a closer look at the words he used. “The debate,” he says, “depends upon on how serious one believes the threat actually is” – not on how serious it actually is, or on the basis of evidence, but on the basis of belief.

It has to be analysed in terms of risk, a subject of some complexity, which I have studied in detail for many years.

Yessss!! I love it when they use appeal to authority. It’s especially delicious when their own argument undermines that authority (“written well before the latest attacks”).

Most of the blogs on this issue were hostile to what I said, but I stand by it. Taking high-consequence risks seriously,

But they’re not high-consequence risks. The largest terrorist attack ever killed under 3000 people. That’s no joke, but as I point out again and again, it’s absolutely tiny in comparison to so many other risks we face.

and mobilising against them, are the conditions of reducing them to manageable proportions, whether they be those associated with global warming, avian flu, world financial meltdown or international terrorism. The more seriously we take each issue, the less chance there is of a destructive outcome; but then those who disagreed with the policy in the first place will always say: “You were scaring us unnecessarily – look, nothing significant has happened.”

It is entirely right that the issue of civil freedoms should continue to be intensely debated. The level of risk should be monitored in a continuing way. One contributor asks, what will happen to freedoms that have been in some part suspended when the threat of terrorism recedes?

I would also add that the threat – such as it is – isn’t going to recede for a very long time, so we should take note that changes to our society based on the threat of terrorism have to be considered semi-permanent.

It is a very necessary question. There must be regular reports made to parliament, which can be scrutinised in detail; an independent role for the judiciary in making judgments has to be sustained; public debate must continue. How far anti-terrorist policies might produce an Orwellian state is itself a matter of risk assessment;

Certainly, if one is going to give the government and police powers which could be abused there should be independent scrutiny to minimise the dangers. The point is that when the state itself is the potential threat, you can’t rely on it to make reports to itself and supervise itself. The effectiveness of an independent method of scrutiny depends very much on the precise details of who exactly is doing it, what their relation to those in power is, what powers they have to investigate and overrule state decisions, etc. Can the judiciary be relied on for this sort of role? I’m not sure one way or the other. Either way, a better way of minimising the risk of abuse of powers is to not grant those powers in the first place, and to put practical obstacles in their way so that future governments cannot give themselves greater powers. Not building a surveillance infrastructure would be a good start.

but such procedures, robustly applied, will keep such an eventuality as the remotest of possibilities.

The remotest of possibilities? How remote is this possibility compared to say, the threat of an effective nuclear, biological or chemical weapons based terrorist attack upon which he based the entirety of his original argument? Presumably he thinks it’s much more remote, but what is the basis of this claim? While there have been no examples of successful such attacks despite much will to use them, there have been plenty of examples of governments that have turned bad based on manipulating the fears of the governed.

That some contributors talk as though such a state is already here, while dismissing new-style terrorism as offering no significant threat, strikes me as absurd.

Comments Off on Giddens: more rhetoric


The past few days
July 3, 2007, 12:17 am
Filed under: Civil Liberties, Politics, Risk, Terrorism

I’ve been away which is why I haven’t written anything about terrorism. I don’t like to blow my own trumpet (OK I do), but I’d just like to point out that on June 15th I wrote:

… This suggests that the number of willing would-be terrorists is actually fairly small, or that they are generally incompetent.

The recent technically incompetent and hopelessly executed attempt at a terrorist attack bears this theory out:

Earlier reports said bouncers from a nearby nightclub saw the car being driven erratically before it crashed into a bin. They claimed the driver then got out and ran off.

In case these attacks are used to justify further incursions on civil liberties, it’s worth pointing out that these people were wholly unknown to the police, that increased detention without trial or other similar powers would not have been useful in stopping them, etc. In other words, existing powers were more than sufficient.

Fortunately, it seems that most people are not giving this attack undue significance. Leninology notes that BBC News 24 were using the phrase “terror fatigue” to describe people’s lack of reaction. Well… at last!

Comments Off on The past few days


Overactive imagination: Giddens on risk
June 19, 2007, 1:44 pm
Filed under: Civil Liberties, Politics, Risk, Security, Terrorism

Anthony Giddens has a piece on CiF explaining that we need to crack down on freedom because of the danger of nuclear terrorism. It’s funny and kind of gratifying that this should appear just a couple of days after I posted a long piece arguing the exact opposite. Unusually, the CiF commenters do a fine job of demolishing his argument – to my amazement there didn’t seem to be a single one supporting him.

What’s nice about this piece though is that he explicitly makes all the mistaken arguments rather than concealing the foolishness of his argument.

First, it cannot be known in advance with certainty how great the risk really is. Second, the consequences are potentially cataclysmic, so we have to bend our efforts to preventing them, rather than picking up the damage afterwards. Third, how we respond to the risk – how seriously we take it – affects the very nature of that risk.

I wonder if he’s familiar with Pascal’s wager? This is the argument that says:

  1. There is a non-zero probability that God exists, call this probability p.
  2. If God exists and we believe in Him the rewards are infinite, \infty.
  3. If God exists and we don’t believe in Him, the punishment is infinite, \infty.
  4. If God doesn’t exist and we believe in Him, the reward is zero, and the cost of the belief is finite, call it C.
  5. If God doesn’t exist and we don’t believe in Him, the rewards and costs are zero.
  6. Consequently, on average, your expected reward-cost for believing in God is p\infty-(1-p)C=\infty (because \infty*something non-zero is \infty, and the cost C is finite).
  7. On average, your expected reward-cost for not-believing in God is -p*\infty=-\infty.
  8. Therefore, on the basis of cost-benefit analysis, we should opt to believe in God.

One problem with this wager is that it misses out on the question of which God to believe in. I can hypothesise an infinite number of different possible Gods, each of whom will infinitely punish you if you believe in any of the other ones. So which God do you opt for? Oh nyoe! We’re all doooomed.

And so, I invite readers to imagine other creative disasters we should be worrying about, and what we should be doing about them. I’ll start:

There is a danger that particle accelerators might produce a rogue particle that could destroy all matter in the universe. The chance is low, but the consequences would be infinitely disastrous. Hence, we should shut down all particle accelerators, cancel all teaching of physics, and what they hey, lock up or execute anyone with any knowledge of particle physics.

Update: Unity has a (long) post on this too, as does UK Liberty. Also, some of the CiF commenters came up with the same game as me. Suggestions so far include the threat of alien invasion and how we all should join the army and learn firearms for when it happens; and more pertinently (but less funny), the threat of a future government turning fascist, and how we should therefore not undermine civil liberties. Another person pointed out – if you really take the threat of nuclear terrorism destroying our civilisation seriously, we ought to be teaching people how to survive in a post-nuclear-holocaust society. Unless you think that new terror powers are almost certain to stop the terrorist nuclear bombs, you should consider this as just as high priority.



Terrorism: Hysteria, Control, Profit
June 15, 2007, 2:38 am
Filed under: Civil Liberties, Manifesto, Media, Politics, Risk, Security, Security Theater, Terrorism

We shouldn’t be afraid of terrorism.

This is something I have written about before, but never really set out my reasons in detail.

We shouldn’t be afraid

John Mueller summarises:

… the number of people worldwide who die as a result of international terrorism is generally only a few hundred a year, tiny compared to the numbers who die in most civil wars or from automobile accidents. In fact, until 2001 far fewer Americans were killed in any grouping of years by all forms of international terrorism than were killed by lightning. And except for 2001, virtually none of these terrorist deaths occurred within the United States itself. Indeed, outside of 2001, fewer people have died in America from international terrorism than have drowned in toilets.

Even with the September 11 attacks included in the count, however, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s (which is when the U.S. State Department began its accounting) is about the same as the number killed over the same period by lightning—or by accident-causing deer or by severe allergic reactions to peanuts. In almost all years the total number of people worldwide who die at the hands of international terrorists is not much more than the number who drown in bathtubs in the United States.

Mueller plots this data (colours added by me to make it look better in the tiny picture):

terrorism-graph.jpg

There is a massive spike in 2001 as a consequence of the WTC attacks. Data after 2003 is slightly more difficult to come by because after 2001 the methods of collecting terrorism data changed, and some claim that they were inflated. The NCST give this shiny graph of monthly fatalities from terrorist attacks from 1998 to 2004:

fatalities98-04.jpg

The MIPT data gives this for worldwide annual terrorism fatalities 2000-2006:

fatalities00-04-mipt.jpg

For the US and Western Europe only, they give this data (I’ve not included the roughly 3000 WTC attack deaths in 2001 so that the scale of the graph is right and you can see the detail more clearly) for 1968-2007:

deathsuseurope-notwtc.jpg

The graphs indicate that terrorism is on the rise, but even taking the most pessimistic view of things the numbers are still microscopic on a global or even national scale. For comparison, in the US there are 40,000 road deaths a year, in the UK there are 3000 a year.

The upshot of all this is that based on the evidence of what has happened so far, the chance of being killed in a terrorist attack is negligible. If you want to worry about being killed by something, terrorism should be one of the last things on your list.

But what if things got much worse?

It’s possible that terrorist actions could get worse in three ways:

  1. they could become much more frequent
  2. they could get much more effective
  3. they could get hold of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons

The first scenario seems to be unlikely. Terrorist attacks are actually quite easy to pull off, and yet there aren’t very many. In America, you can buy high powered guns legally. All a terrorist would have to do is buy one and go crazy in a shopping mall. If you had a large number of potential terrorists, this would be a highly effective strategy but it hasn’t happened. This suggests that the number of willing would-be terrorists is actually fairly small, or that they are generally incompetent. There’s also no particular reason to think that attacks should become much more frequent than they are. The Iraq war has certainly done a lot to increase the number of terrorist attacks worldwide, but even doubling and tripling these numbers leaves the danger tiny.

The second scenario also seems unlikely to bring any great change. Increased numbers of terrorists might mean an increase in expertise and so an increase in effectiveness, but on the basis of what we’ve seen so far, this wouldn’t make an enormous difference. The largest and most effective terrorist attack ever was the WTC attack which killed some 3000 people, but far from being an indication of a new and more effective terrorism, it was more likely a freak event that was much more effective than expected. In a video released in December 2001 (although not everyone believes it is genuine), Osama bin Laden says:

(…Inaudible…) we calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy, who would be killed based on the position of the tower. We calculated that the floors that would be hit would be three or four floors. I was the most optimistic of them all. (…Inaudible…) due to my experience in this field, I was thinking that the fire from the gas in the plane would melt the iron structure of the building and collapse the area where the plane hit and all the floors above it only. This is all that we had hoped for.

In other words, what they expected to achieve with the attack was a tiny fraction of what they actually managed to achieve. That said, it could also have been much worse than it was if more people had been in the buildings for example. Along these lines, it might happen that at some point in the future another terrorist plot happens to succeed as well or better than this. It’s unlikely, but even if it did happen, it still probably wouldn’t make an awful lot of difference. To put it in perspective, a disaster on the scale of 9/11 would have to happen once a month before the number of deaths was the same as the number who die in car accidents every year in the US.

So the only possible scenario we really need to worry about is that terrorists might get hold of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. This is not something I know anything about, so here I’ll just quote Mueller:

Chemical arms do have the potential, under appropriate circumstances, for panicking people; killing masses of them in open areas, however, is beyond their modest capabilities… Biologist Matthew Meselson calculates that it would take a ton of nerve gas or five tons of mustard gas to produce heavy casualties among unprotected people in an open area of one square kilometer. Even for nerve gas this would take the concentrated delivery into a rather small area of about three hundred heavy artillery shells or seven 500-pound bombs. A 1993 analysis by the Office of Technology Assessment of the U.S. Congress finds that a ton of sarin nerve gas perfectly delivered under absolutely ideal conditions over a heavily populated area against unprotected people could cause between three thousand and eight thousand deaths. Under slightly less ideal circumstances—if there was a moderate wind or if the sun was out, for example—the death rate would be only one-tenth as great. Although gas was used extensively in World War I, it accounted for less than 1 percent of the battle deaths. In fact, on average it took over a ton of gas to produce a single fatality.

Properly developed and deployed, biological weapons could indeed (if thus far only in theory) kill hundreds of thousands—perhaps even millions—of people. The discussion remains theoretical because biological weapons have scarcely ever been used. Belligerents have eschewed such weapons with good reason: biological weapons are extremely difficult to deploy and to control. Terrorist groups or rogue states may be able to solve such problems in the future with advances in technology and knowledge, but the record thus far is unlikely to be very encouraging to them. In the 1990s, Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese cult that had some three hundred scientists in its employ and an estimated budget of $1 billion, reportedly tried at least nine times over five years to set off biological weapons by spraying pathogens from trucks and wafting them from rooftops, hoping fancifully to ignite an apocalyptic war. These efforts failed to create a single fatality—in fact, nobody even noticed that the attacks had taken place. For the most destructive results, biological weapons need to be dispersed in very low-altitude aerosol clouds: aerosols do not appreciably settle, and anthrax (which is not easy to spread or catch and is not contagious) would probably have to be sprayed near nose level. Explosive methods of dispersion may destroy the organisms. Moreover, except for anthrax spores, long-term storage of lethal organisms in bombs or warheads is difficult and, even if refrigerated, most of the organisms have a limited lifetime.

Nuclear weapons, most decidedly, can indeed inflict massive destruction, and it is certainly reasonable to point out that an atomic bomb in the hands of a terrorist or rogue state could kill tens of thousands of people. But it may also be worthwhile to note that making such a bomb is an extraordinarily difficult task and that warnings about the possibility that small groups, terrorists, and errant states could fabricate nuclear weapons have been repeatedly uttered at least since 1947, and especially since the 1950s when the ‘‘suitcase bomb’’ appeared to become a practical possibility. It has now been three decades since terrorism specialist Brian Jenkins published his warnings that ‘‘the mass production and widespread distribution of increasingly sophisticated and increasingly powerful man-portable weapons will greatly add to the terrorist’s arsenal’’ and that ‘‘the world’s increasing dependence on nuclear power may provide terrorists with weapons of mass destruction.’’

So why does nobody say this?

Some people have said this sort of thing, but not many and rarely people in prominent public positions. The mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, recently got in trouble when he said:

There are lots of threats to you in the world. There’s the threat of a heart attack for genetic reasons. You can’t sit there and worry about everything. Get a life…. You have a much greater danger of being hit by lightning than being struck by a terrorist.

US Senator John McCain wrote:

Get on the damn elevator! Fly on the damn plane! Calculate the odds of being harmed by a terrorist! It’s still about as likely as being swept out to sea by a tidal wave. . . Suck it up, for crying out loud. You’re almost certainly going to be okay. And in the unlikely event you’re not, do you really want to spend your last days cowering behind plastic sheets and duct tape? That’s not a life worth living, is it?

So why is the perception of the terrorist threat so out of proportion to the real threat?

Well, one reason is that we’re very bad at estimating risk. We tend to overestimate the significance of dramatic and unusual events. News reporting multiplies this effect, because by its very nature it reports the news, the unusual, not the run of the mill risks we face every day which are actually much more significant. This begins to explain it, but it doesn’t really excuse our ignorance. Terrorism has been a major world issue for almost 6 years now, plenty of time for a more realistic view to have gained acceptance.

There are all sorts of reasons why it might not have, but the one I want to focus on is that it isn’t in the interests of anyone who might have been able to lower the perception of the terror threat to have done so.

The media aren’t exactly in the business of making things sound less dramatic and exciting than they really are. It is in their interests to exaggerate the threat. Perhaps more importantly than that, it is certainly not in their interests to portray the threat rationally and calmly. How boring would that be?

Similarly, politicians have much to gain from exaggerating the threat, and much to potentially lose by being reasonable about it. If they told everyone that everything was OK and they needn’t worry, what would the reaction be next time there was a terrorist strike? It wouldn’t matter if there were only a few casualties, fitting the general prediction that terrorist attacks will occur but won’t add up to anything like the number killed by everyday threats like cars and bathtubs, they would immediately be ridiculed and voted out. Not only that, but in the immediate aftermath of an attack, doing nothing is simply not a politically viable option, even if it is actually the least worst one. Actually, I’m not at all convinced that this need be so, but being reasonable about the threat, for a politician, is decidedly the more personally difficult and risky approach.

Politicians also rely on their advisers considerably, and these advisers are typically unelected and have much to gain from the increased control that the threat of terrorism can buy. Increased powers make the job of the police easier. Huge databases on us make the jobs of civil servants easier. Increased funding makes the jobs of the secret services easier. They have everything to gain from exaggerating the threat, and the politicians listen to what they say.

Finally, there is a whole sector of the economy that produces technology for fighting the ‘war on terror’. Billions of pounds are spent on this technology, and so the companies involved have very good reason, and ample resources to spend on lobbying and exaggerating the threat.

A word on policy

Most of what the government does in response to terrorism is actually ineffective or even counterproductive. Not only are they wasting billions on this and destroying civil liberties that define the nature of our society, but they might even be making us less safe.

A couple of examples of this. In the few months after 9/11, many people in the US would drive around the country instead of taking internal flights. As a consequence, it was estimated that 1000 more people died in traffic accidents than normal for that period of time. Bad advice to avoid planes and our inability to assess risks accurately cost 1000 lives, more than a third of the death toll of 9/11 itself.

After the Tube attacks in London, a policy of random searches of bags was instituted on the New York subway. On an average day, there are 4m journeys on the NY subway, so the chance of catching a terrorist if there were one (and there hasn’t been one yet) would be tiny. Could those police officers have been used more effectively in fighting ordinary crime? Nobody has done the calculations, but it seems likely.

Some have argued that although these measures are strictly speaking quite ineffective, they might have a deterrent effect. Terrorists might be put off from trying to blow us up because of the danger of getting caught. But is this really a sustainable point of view? Someone who is willing to blow themselves up in killing a few people would be put off by a tiny chance of having their bag searched? What would they have to lose? Even if their bag was searched, they could set off their bomb as the police officer approached.

What about the extreme risks associated to, say, a nuclear terrorist attack. Surely it’s worth doing anything we can to avoid that? The thing is, for new laws and powers to be effective, two things would both have to happen. Firstly, the terrorists would have to have the expertise and materials in the right place to pull of a nuclear attack that worked. That’s unlikely, as we’ve already seen. On top of that, the police would have to be able to stop this plot using the new powers, but not using the old powers. Bruce Schneier claims that in all cases of foiled terrorist plots so far, they were foiled using traditional methods of investigation rather than new anti-terror powers. Most of the time both of these things aren’t going to happen – either the terrorists wouldn’t be able to pull off the nuclear attack, or the police would have been able to foil the plot using the powers they already had.

Let’s think about some numbers. There’s no way of working out these probabilities exactly, so these numbers are just to give an idea. Suppose there’s a 1 in 100 chance that the terrorists had the materials and expertise to pull off a terrorist attack, and that there’s a 1 in 100 better chance that the police can stop it with the extra powers. This would mean that these powers would be effective only 1 in 10,000 times. If the chances were both 1 in 10 rather than 1 in 100, the new powers would be effective only 1 in 100 times.

The point is that when we’re thinking about whether or not to pass new laws or grant new powers to the police, we shouldn’t be thinking that these laws will stop a nuclear attack therefore they are justified even though they’re extreme, we should be thinking that these new laws might help to stop a relatively unlikely terrorist attack that might have been stopped anyway.

Is that worth undermining the nature of our society for?

Absolutely not.

(Note: this entry was edited slightly from the original posting to improve the last section, but no substantive changes were made.)



A recommendation
May 14, 2007, 6:43 pm
Filed under: Civil Liberties, Economics, Politics, Risk, Security, Security Theater

For those of you who haven’t already found it, Bruce Schneier’s blog is a must-read for anyone who has an interest in privacy and security. He presents rigorously analysed, rational views in an extremely easy to read manner. As an example, one of his most useful concepts is “security theater” defined by wikipedia as “security countermeasures that provide the feeling of security while doing little or nothing actually to improve security”. It’s a description that perfectly encapsulates a lot of policy since the WTC attacks.

His latest article – Does secrecy help protect personal information? – is a good illustration:

Personal information protection is an economic problem, not a security problem. And the problem can be easily explained: The organizations we trust to protect our personal information do not suffer when information gets exposed. On the other hand, individuals who suffer when personal information is exposed don’t have the capability to protect that information.

Credit card companies make more money extending easy credit and making it trivial for customers to use their cards than they lose from fraud. They won’t improve their security as long as you (and not they) are the one who suffers from identity theft. It’s the same for banks and brokerages: As long as you’re the one who suffers when your account is hacked, they don’t have any incentive to fix the problem.



Fact of the day
May 3, 2007, 11:51 pm
Filed under: Politics, Risk, Terrorism

In the three months following the WTC attacks, over 1000 people died because they travelled by car instead of by plane.

(From this interesting article.)

Comments Off on Fact of the day