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In Hindsight, Naming the NSA Terrorist-Spotting Algorithm ‘Skynet’ Was a Bad Idea

In Hindsight, Naming the NSA Terrorist-Spotting Algorithm ‘Skynet’ Was a Bad Idea: Via 'Terminator' (1984).

Via 'Terminator' (1984).

In 2015 The Intercept leaked documents about a secret NSA program using algorithms to comb through Pakistan’s cellular network metadata in order to spot potential terrorists. To many, the strong possibility that many of those who were tagged by the program were later targeted for assassination was worrisome, as was the fact that the program was named Skynet.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with classic sci-fi films of the 80s and 90s, Skynet is the name of the computer system in the Terminator films. It was developed by the U.S. Government in order to automize the military and remove the possibility of human error. But it eventually became self aware, and decided to destroy all of humanity, which it viewed as a threat.

It doesn’t take a sci-fi geek to understand why naming your computer-based assassination-worthiness detector after a murderous computer program is a bad idea. But thanks to a new report from Ars Technica, we now know that naming the program Skynet may have actually been appropriate.

According to the report, data scientist and executive director at the Human Rights Data Analysis Group Patrick Ball believes the program described in the leaked documents is “ridiculously optimistic” and “completely bullshit” because the algorithm used to determine if a person is a terrorist is “scientifically unsound.”

“First, there are very few ‘known terrorists’ to use to train and test the model,” Ball told Ars Technica. “If they are using the same records to train the model as they are using to test the model, their assessment of the fit is completely bullshit. The usual practice is to hold some of the data out of the training process so that the test includes records the model has never seen before. Without this step, their classification fit assessment is ridiculously optimistic.”

While Ball probably isn’t the most unbiased source on the matter, that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. And while we’d all like to believe that there are safeguards in place, and the government isn’t killing targets based on Skynet metadata analysis alone, former NSA head Gen. Michael Hayden’s 2014 admission that “we kill people based on metadata” isn’t very reassuring.

(Via Ars Technica)

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