Saturday, December 01, 2007

"See something say something" false positives

There are numerous programs for ordinary citizens to report suspicious sightings. Bruce Schneier (among many others) wrote about the problems in these sorts of programs, and how they're prone to get lots of false positives.

Here's one to add to the list: Orthodox (and some non-Orthodox) Jewish men (and a few women) wear Tefillin as part of daily morning prayers every day except Saturday. They are somewhat odd-looking to anyone who hasn't encountered them before. Seems that passengers on a commuter train in suburban Chicago didn't know what they were. They summoned the conductor, who asked the man what he was doing. He replied "I'm praying" and didn't want to be interrupted further. So the conductor stopped the train at the next station and called the police (who, for the record, were brighter than the conductor, and did not arrest the man - contrary to some reports). Apparently one of the concerns was that the straps of the tefillin were "wires" (which is amusing, considering that they are always made of leather).

The issue isn't whether the practice is strange - many religious rituals are strange to those not familiar with them - but whether the paranoia about terrorism has gotten so out of hand that people are unable to distinguish an unusual behavior from a threatening one. But that's really not really a question - it's more a sad reflection on our times.


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