Friday, April 10, 2009

HOWNOTTO be caught as a student terrorist

The thing that pisses me off about Al-Qa'ida is that they insist on egging the government on. That said, I can't think of anything more ridiculous than Phil Woolas wanting to have reports of any foreign student who misses ten lectures. I can't think of many things more ridiculous and contemptible than Phil Woolas anyway, but this drowns the fish.

I should point out that he was on Radio 4 earlier today claiming that "biometric visas" were our first line of defence, because the visas were checked against a watchlist. He didn't say, mark, that the biometrics were; after all, if they haven't caught the guy yet, they don't have his dabs.

Let's think about it sensibly. I doubt there is a single student in the world who hasn't accumulated 10 hours of non-attendance during their course of study; even if you reset the limit after every academic year, there will still be an absurd number of false positives. There are 330,000 foreign students in the UK. How many might miss 10 hours of classes in a given year? For some courses, you'd only need a couple of days off sick. An outbreak of freshers' flu at the right schools could stage a denial-of-service attack on the whole gig. How many reports are they prepared to follow up, to what degree of thoroughness?

Further, and I know this is a pathetic argument long since raped by history, the idea of a university implies a commitment to intellectual freedom and a certain respect for the fact that the students are adults who attend of their free will.

But even if you forget everything else, as a security measure this is quite incredibly cretinous. The threat it is designed to mitigate is that terrorists will pose as students in order to infiltrate the country, or rather that they will actually become students in order to do so. Of course, they may also do this to prepare an attack on some other country. Anyway. If you have registered at a university in order to pose as a student, it's obviously part of your cover story that you go to lectures. Depending on what you are planning, you might even be hoping to get access to things you need for the attack - information, a good chemical or biological lab, perhaps time on a supercomputer - in which case you've got to go to the lab or the library regularly as well.

This is a security measure which is designed to miss anyone who matches the attack profile it's designed to detect. Further, the more serious, disciplined, and well-organised the attacker, and the more technical and demanding the subject they choose to study - in short, the more dangerous - they are, the less likely it is to detect them. It even provides them with an explicit target number of classes they must not miss. It is quite brilliant in a negative way.

It is especially hilarious that several ministers in the government spent much of their student years plotting, or imagining that they plotted, how to bring about the world revolution. Presumably, they did this between lectures. Or perhaps they didn't, and in fact they are basing their policy on their own experience; which would explain how little they seem to have learned.


Fellow Traveller said...

Metternich did it first in 1819 with the Carlsbad Decrees.

Francis said...

I racked up absence from 10 lectures about half way through my first term. And I repeated it approximately another 17 times (or thereabouts). I'm calculating this based purely on how many days I recall when the antisocial lecturers having their lectures at times like 9am and I needed a lie in after a hard night studying the economics of ale.

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