Saturday, February 20, 2010

Algorithm for a Terrorist?

Terrorism has become a part of our lives. Not necessarily because we have been or would be affected by it but because of our fear of the uncertain and our love for the media that ain't spare a khan. Our chances of dying in a car accident, walking on the road, getting choked up by food and being a victim of a defective mobile/laptop explosion are like 10x times more real than being holed up in a 26/11 Mumbai, 7/7 London or 9/11 New York like situation. Yet terrorism persists in our imagination and for most of us is in the form of a guy who could carry out a suicide bomb blast just about anywhere.

So who is a terrorist?

Algorithmically speaking, there are people who have attempted to discover terrorists simply by taking a look at their lives. I'm lifting this one from SuperFreakonomics.

The banking history of nineteen terrorists from the September 11 attacks reveals the following:
  • They opened an account of roughly about $4000 in a branch of a well know bank.
  • Typically used a P.O. Box number as an address that changed frequently instead of a fixed address.
  • Regularly had wire transfers from multiple countries below limits that would actually trigger alerts in Banking reports.
  • Normally had one large cash deposit and several small withdrawals.
  • Banking did not reflect normal expenses like rent, insurance, food, etc.
  • No consistency in money withdrawals.
  • Ratio of cash withdrawals to checks written was unusually high.
  • Didn't use savings a/c or safe deposit boxes.
Add to this some data from the 7/7 London attacks investigation, namely:
  • Since most of the suspects arrested were Islamic fundamentalists, one of the strongest demographic markers in the algorithm would be to have an Islamic name.
No wonder all that's said and done about My Name is Khan could be unscrupulously true or even worse.
  • They were also likely to own a mobile phone, be a student and rent rather than own a house.
  • Not withdraw money from an ATM on Friday afternoon. (This corresponds to the Friday mandatory prayer service for Muslims and is again worked around the assumption of terrorists being Muslims).
  • Not buy life insurance because insurance companies do not pay out if you die in suicide, lest pay for being a suicide bomber.
Supposedly based on this pattern and applying it to the general population, a small but significant section of the population was filtered out and marked as likely to be terrorist.What happened next is but anyone's guess. There are more scientific techniques too like this one for terrorism in Turkey and this one to figure out what a terror network looks like.

What if in all this statistical science we end up blaming a set of people who have nothing to do with terrorism (Obviously, Terrorists don't follow any religion, they just religiously follow terrorism and that could be just about anyone) ? What if our very fundamental visualization of 'guy with suicide bomb' as a terrorist is wrong (I definitely believe it is)? Maybe the reasons and forces behind terrorism are powerful and remain seemingly hidden because in all likelihood terrorism is just another political gimmick? I would rather leave those trivialities to open-minded self-opinionated intelligent readers like you :)

Pratik Mandrekar

P.S - My name is Pratik, and I'm not a terrorist. Marry Me?


Chimu said...

oh i better withdraw money from ATM on next Friday! :P

chosen1 said...

How can your `self-opnionated` intelligent readers also be `open-minded`? :P
Nice links btw; especially to those research papers...
One thing tat rocks abt ur posts is that they abound in links & tags..How come so few tags this time? ;)

Saurabh Bhide said...

"terrorism is just another political gimmick" ? Maybe.Maybe not.

We all know about Nestle's strategy to sell milk powder by bribing doctors to say that it is better than mother's milk.

There is a possibility that this whole 'terrorism' thing is a very effective marketing strategy too, implemented by security equipment manufacturers. These people are the ones profiting the most from this so-called 'terror'. Just notice the number of security equipment that you see around you every day. Some people are making hundreds of millions of dollars selling these things.

I'm not saying this is the case, but it might be a possibility.Does anyone else think this is likely ?

ratpik said...

@chosen1- You have an open mind :P

@Saurabh- I think that's a valid point but monetary benefits may not necessarily be the driving force especially when several countries are involved and fight for egoistic issues and traditional rivalry..

chosen1 said...

Would a Pune-style bomb blast have happened in a Chinese city? Or a 26/11? Or any of the scores of terror attacks that India has been subjected to over the years?
Check this link