What does it mean to be “51 percent” certain that something is true? It means you’re more certain than not – but certainly not certain. It might mean you’re fine with admitting you’d been wrong, if it turns out the other 49 percent in that simplistic ratio proved correct.
When the National Security Agency (NSA) or a Federal law enforcement entity – whether it’s the Department of Justice, FBI or Department of homeland Security – starts querying its massive computer databases for specific “non-U.S. persons” as defined by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), all they need is a 51 percent suspicion that the person they’re about to secretly track online isn’t an American citizen.
From the original Washington Post story that revealed details about the NSA’s PRISM internet spy program:
Analysts who use the system from a Web portal at Fort Meade, Md., key in “selectors,” or search terms, that are designed to produce at least 51 percent confidence in a target’s “foreignness.” That is not a very stringent test. Training materials obtained by The Post instruct new analysts to make quarterly reports of any accidental collection of U.S. content, but add that “it’s nothing to worry about.”
Those of you who gamble: if an oddsmaker told you to bet your fortune because he was “51 percent sure” that your sports team would cover the spread, would you flinch when he told you the 49 percent of doubt was “nothing to worry about?”
When and if Congress revises the bevy of laws governing what the NSA, DOJ, FBI and DHS can and can’t do, it needs to leave numeric-based probability to the Vegas bookies – and leave it out of the burgeoning U.S. surveillance state.