falafelfilter: FBI data mining bad ideas
November 6, 2007 10:35 PM   Subscribe

The idea was that a spike in, say, falafel sales, combined with other data, would lead to Iranian secret agents in the south San Francisco-San Jose area. I've read this article twice now because I was laughing too hard the first time. If I were more paranoid I might actually seriously ask what sort of data mining the FBI is doing, but... falafel sales! via.

Seriously though. My homework for Thursday is to read and respond to an article on HIPAA requirements and prescription compliance programs. Privacy and government stupidity are very much on my mind.
posted by tarheelcoxn (75 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'd say it was more likely that Bill O'Reilly was in town
posted by edgeways at 10:41 PM on November 6, 2007 [6 favorites]


Iranian secret agents, or, say, Bill O'Reilly.

Seriously, though. Uh, it's San Francisco. What exactly constitutes a "spike" in falafel sales? It's a traditional hippy staple food. What's next? Lentils? Curry? Taboule?

Damnit, Mideast and halal food is tasty. And now I'm hungry again.
posted by loquacious at 10:45 PM on November 6, 2007


I'm al out of outrage. Can I just cry because people are stupid instead?
posted by -t at 10:47 PM on November 6, 2007 [6 favorites]


HERF DERF ITS A GOOD THING ONLY IRANIANS EAT FALAFEL 9/11 NEVAR FOGET GOD BLEAS AMERICA.

*shoots self*
posted by Avenger at 10:48 PM on November 6, 2007 [2 favorites]


I'm sure Iranians are going to buy boxed falafel as opposed to making it from scratch or going to one of the many middle eastern and/or Iranian restaurants in the SF Bay area that sell it.
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:50 PM on November 6, 2007


Actually, the middle eastern shop in my old neighbourhood had lots of M.E. customers, and stocked a variety of boxed falafel for them. The boxes were obviously imported from M.E. countries as well.

I imagine it's just a pain in the ass to make it all the time.
posted by Kickstart70 at 10:53 PM on November 6, 2007


The real question is how do we deal with the spike in fucking idiots that are running this country.
posted by phaedon at 10:55 PM on November 6, 2007 [17 favorites]


But all sorts of people like to eat falafel! The real hardened terrorists are the ones ordering shawarma.
posted by contraption at 11:01 PM on November 6, 2007


Mmmm... shawarma.
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:04 PM on November 6, 2007 [5 favorites]


Which will lead to: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0172543/
posted by uncanny hengeman at 11:10 PM on November 6, 2007


No, you have it all wrong. No serious intelligence agency would do anything so fatuous; they've obviously mixed the one FBI up with the other, the Falafel Buyers' Inspectorate.
posted by Abiezer at 11:18 PM on November 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


Well, look at the facts: Iraqis, Iranians, Israelis or Palestinians I don't know the difference anymore, Hippies. Only problem groups eat falafel.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 11:18 PM on November 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


Considering that there are a lot of Iranians living in the Bay Area, and that they have relatives coming in/going out of the area all the time, I can't even imagine how they would think that a few agents, even a lot of agents, would cause any noticeable blips in anything.
posted by eye of newt at 11:19 PM on November 6, 2007


@ eye of newt: Of course, but you seem to be assuming that there is a difference between "Iranians" and "terrorists." The people in charge of this scheme apparently disagree.

Or, for that matter, between 'falafel eaters' and 'terrorists.'
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:24 PM on November 6, 2007


Honestly, that cluelessness really astounds me sometimes. The CIA actually came to my Arabic school a while ago to try to recruit people. Nevermind that people in my classes still can barely tell time in Modern Standard Arabic & haven't even started learning dialects yet, we're still ahead of the American government. It's scary.

As of last year, only 33 - or 1% - of FBI agents spoke limited Arabic. That's like if nobody spoke Russian during the Cold War. The ignorance and stupidity is just ridiculous.
posted by miss lynnster at 11:24 PM on November 6, 2007


By the way... you know why they call it falafel don't you?






'Cuz after you eat it? You falafel.


Okay yeah, so it's a phoenetic joke. Just say it out loud.
posted by miss lynnster at 11:26 PM on November 6, 2007 [3 favorites]


If only Piscano kept his fucking mouth shut.
posted by phaedon at 11:27 PM on November 6, 2007


Wonder if the FBI watched the Flafel Drive-In in San Jose. Truly excellent falafel place, by the way. Their site (flash intro.)
posted by telstar at 11:34 PM on November 6, 2007


No one here but us good Murkins!*

Data point: IaAIWLitBAaLF= I am a Iranian who lives in the Bay Area and likes Falafels
posted by Devils Slide at 11:34 PM on November 6, 2007


And falafels aren't Persian. Stupid FBI brainiacs.
posted by Devils Slide at 11:35 PM on November 6, 2007 [5 favorites]


Mmmm... shawarma.

You fool. Unplug your computer and get out of the house.
posted by contraption at 11:36 PM on November 6, 2007 [2 favorites]


telstar, they're about two miles from where I live. I don't get the buzz though, for one thing, their falafels are green on the inside.
posted by Devils Slide at 11:48 PM on November 6, 2007


'Cuz after you eat it? You falafel.

I maded you a falafel but I blewed it up.

Must.Leave.Thread.
posted by Devils Slide at 11:50 PM on November 6, 2007


'Cuz after you eat it? You falafel.

Iran to the store to pick up a sn-ackbar, but I realized I was Allah out of mullah. My mosque perfume business had not turned a prophet for months, and Ji had not paid his shariah the rent for November.
posted by Krrrlson at 11:54 PM on November 6, 2007 [3 favorites]


So let's see now... someone came up with an stupid idea and shopped it around. The FBI leadership looked at the idea and said "That's really stupid, we're not doing that."

And now a bunch of people get to run around saying "Boy, isn't the FBI stupid! They recognized a stupid idea and didn't do it!"

Truly, this is a great moment in government transparency. The sensible people in the FBI must be feeling really well rewarded for opening their internal processes to outside review. I'll bet they're motivated to do it a lot more now.
posted by tkolar at 12:00 AM on November 7, 2007 [4 favorites]


I'm al out of outrage.

Didn't the CIA waterboard al-Out to learn about the great falafel plot of '05?
posted by ryoshu at 12:32 AM on November 7, 2007


their falafels are green on the inside.

That's the herbs and those, along with their wonderful tahini dressing make it some of the best falafel I've tasted anywhere.
posted by telstar at 12:32 AM on November 7, 2007


I'm not really sure how you derive "they recognized a stupid idea and didn't do it" from "the FBI sifted through customer data collected by San Francisco-area grocery stores in 2005 and 2006, hoping that sales records of Middle Eastern food would lead to Iranian terrorists." Sounds an awful lot like they did do it, sans oversight, until the news percolated up to someone who could see what a PR disaster it would be and shut them down retroactively.

This is the kind of prima facie awful idea that should be shot down as soon as it appears in an agent's head - it's so patently stupid that nobody should have been allowed to start data-mining in the first place. Remember back when the fourth amendment protected citizens against unreasonable search and seizure and the fifth amendment guaranteed them due process under the law?
posted by whir at 1:11 AM on November 7, 2007


Remember back when the fourth amendment protected citizens against unreasonable search and seizure and the fifth amendment guaranteed them due process under the law?

Only in the pre-9/11 Constitution. We're in a post-9/11 world now, son.
posted by grouse at 1:33 AM on November 7, 2007


Man, we don't have enough solid legitimate leads to real crimes, so we've got our folks mining falafel data? Sometimes I wonder why they call this stuff intelligence, because the people calling the shots clearly lack any such thing.
posted by jamstigator at 3:22 AM on November 7, 2007


...*wipes tahini from corner of mouth with crumpled up bill of rights*
posted by greenskpr at 3:49 AM on November 7, 2007 [5 favorites]


I'd say it was more likely that Bill O'Reilly was in town

He's too much of a class act to sell his falafel.
posted by Coventry at 3:57 AM on November 7, 2007


This is the kind of prima facie awful idea that should be shot down as soon as it appears in an agent's head

God forbid that FBI agents have any personal autonomy in case they come up with stupid and/or crazy and/or illegal ideas now and then. We need cameras in every cubicle and a formal review process every time and agent smells his own falafel.
posted by public at 4:21 AM on November 7, 2007


So...maybe we could get the terror-alert level raised to blazing cherry red, if we organized huge mass-purchases across the country?
A gross of falafel in SF.
A shipping palette of hummus in Chicago.
etc.

We could get the skies filled with black helicopters as they swarmed from one sudden spike to another.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:39 AM on November 7, 2007


... argued that putting somebody on a terrorist list for what they ate was ridiculous — and possibly illegal.

Possibly??
posted by odinsdream at 5:31 AM on November 7, 2007


I can see the writing on the wall. I don't know about you, but I'm going to think twice about ordering Freedom Fries with my next big mac.
posted by b1tr0t at 5:44 AM on November 7, 2007


And then they came for the vegans... and I did not speak out.
posted by zaelic at 5:53 AM on November 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


This reminds me of the time the Director of Homeland Security (and I believe the vice president) admonished all of America to be on the look out for people carrying large telephone books......

cuz ya know those terrorists need to make lots of calls.
posted by bluesky43 at 6:06 AM on November 7, 2007


This reminds me of the time the Director of Homeland Security (and I believe the vice president) admonished all of America to be on the look out for people carrying large telephone books......

Interesting, do you have a source for this?
posted by grouse at 6:22 AM on November 7, 2007


Mason, who is leaving the FBI to become security chief for Verizon ...

For some reason, I experienced a brief sensation of crystalline clarity when I read that.
posted by Killick at 6:24 AM on November 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


Wow, no wonder the Canadian dollar will soon be worth more than ours. I blame the republicans, the democrats, and the non-existent 3rd party independents for not be a good alternative. Most of all I blame every idiot that voted for Bush more than once! Also I blame myself for not doing anything about it! God I love my country but I hate my government.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 6:24 AM on November 7, 2007


If I get chips, I mean Freedom Fries, on my falafel, will they cancel each other out?
posted by bassjump at 6:34 AM on November 7, 2007


Damn, I just bought a bunch of stuff last week from the local Middle Eastern grocery. I AM HELPING TO BOLSTER EVIDENCE FOR THE WAR AGAINST IRAN!

Thank Allah, I paid in cash so the FBI can't track me down...
posted by JJ86 at 6:40 AM on November 7, 2007


The real hardened terrorists are the ones ordering shawarma.

Mmm, I think I'm going to get some hardened terrorism from Momoud's for lunch today.

Now I need a terrorist name to go along with my porn star name...maybe Seth Al-Jared.
posted by JaredSeth at 6:42 AM on November 7, 2007


Whoops, Mamoud's. Can't offend the shawarma gods.
posted by JaredSeth at 6:42 AM on November 7, 2007


First: ethnic shoppers, be they Mexican, Iranian, Indian or Chinese, generally do not buy the foods from their home countries at American grocery stores. They buy them at small, ethnic food stores specializing in foreign foods. The reason for this is simple: the major grocery chains do not cater to these customers, and generally stock inferior (and overpriced) goods. No self-respecting Indian chef buys his spices from Safeway, just as Koreans seeking a kimchi fix do not go to Whole Foods. Most obvious of all, no Iranian, or any other religious Muslim buys their meat at major American grocery stores, for one simple reason: it's not halal.

Second: Small ethnic grocery stores generally do not track their customers' purchases. While the major chains all seem to have adopted evil tracking "store loyalty" cards, your average mom and pop Mexican market is likely to have a single cash register at the front of the store. No fancy computers through which to give consumers a five percent discount in exchange for having their transactions tracked.

I wrote about this story at length in a blog post (elsewhere) today. All signs, IMHO, point to collusion with the credit card companies.

It's be far simplier, and more effective, for the FBI to simply ask for a list of the names of -anyone- who purchased anything using a CC at one of several bay area middle eastern markets. This is the same data set they could get by handing a national security letter to each store owner - and well, Visa/MC are far more likely to hand over the data without telling the general public.
posted by genome4hire at 6:55 AM on November 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


News Flash: Spike in the Sales of Lite-Brite® Kits Paralyzes Greater Boston Area; City on Code Red Alert."
posted by ericb at 7:03 AM on November 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


Wow, no wonder the Canadian dollar will soon be worth more than ours.

Soon?
posted by hangashore at 7:10 AM on November 7, 2007


If enjoying a good falafel makes me a terrorist, then ALLAHU AKBAR!
posted by SansPoint at 7:10 AM on November 7, 2007


I don't know about you guys, but I sure feel safer now.
posted by Afroblanco at 7:17 AM on November 7, 2007


I'm surprised nobody's mentioned the origin of this idea, the Pentagon pizza rule which says you can tell when the US is about to start a war by watching for a spike in pizza sales near the Pentagon.
posted by scalefree at 7:17 AM on November 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


They came for the falafel, but I did not speak up because I don't much like falafel.

Then they came for the acai berry juice, and I did not speak up because it's too damn expensive.

Then they came for the fish tacos...
posted by jquinby at 7:36 AM on November 7, 2007


I'm surprised nobody's mentioned the origin of this idea, the Pentagon pizza rule which says you can tell when the US is about to start a war by watching for a spike in pizza sales near the Pentagon.
posted by scalefree at 9:17 AM on November 7 [+] [!]



A Message from the Inscrutible Sage of The Land of The Sacred Chao...

Mu brother,

That's just pizza parties in honor of Rummy becomming the next Anti-Saint.


Hail Eris
posted by Sam.Burdick at 7:45 AM on November 7, 2007


This reminds me of the time the Director of Homeland Security (and I believe the vice president) admonished all of America to be on the look out for people carrying large telephone books......

Interesting, do you have a source for this?


FBI urges police to watch for people carrying almanacs
posted by homunculus at 9:09 AM on November 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


Thanks homunculus - my bad for remembering telephone books instead of almanacs.

I wonder how many other patriotic Americans had this object confusion and just missed nabbing a terrorist.
posted by bluesky43 at 9:13 AM on November 7, 2007


.... cuz ya know, terrorists need to have their facts straight.
posted by bluesky43 at 9:15 AM on November 7, 2007


If enjoying a good falafel makes me a terrorist, then ALLAHU AKBAR!

Since Muslims are terrorists. Right.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:17 AM on November 7, 2007


AV: They are in the eyes of someone who thinks this plan is a good idea.
posted by absalom at 9:28 AM on November 7, 2007


Thanks homunculus. Jesus.
posted by grouse at 9:44 AM on November 7, 2007


absalom, you're looking for SansPoint. He's right up there.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:48 AM on November 7, 2007






And yet, the only decent falafel I've found around here has been Lebenese. I actually went to an Iranian restaurant within walking distance from my office and asked if they had falafel; they got all huffy and said "This is a Persian restaurant. We have Persian food. No falafel." (Which is kinda one of those weird points—traditional Persian cuisine is much heavier on the kabob, and tends toward the lime and saffron mix, and doesn't have as much emphasis on the garbanzo, at least in my experience, but I've only ever dealt with American middle-eastern food, even if it's first generation, and there's almost always a falafel on the menu.)
posted by klangklangston at 11:03 AM on November 7, 2007


Mason, who is leaving the FBI to become security chief for Verizon, could not be reached for comment.

Great. I'm sure that'll be great for everyone who is tired of their phones being warrantlessly tapped.
posted by cobra_high_tigers at 11:45 AM on November 7, 2007


"This is a Persian restaurant. We have Persian food. No falafel."

Indeed. Iran is a large country and the cuisine is quite varied. Persians are not Arabs, and Persian food is closer to north Indian (mughlai) food. Which is not surprising because the mughals came to India through Persia and Afghanistan.

I guess the next time I get falafel for lunch I'd better leave my annotated almanac behind since I'm obviously one of them furriners.
posted by phliar at 12:35 PM on November 7, 2007


The Investorettes visit the Fleet-A-Pita franchise.

Helen: Hmm, Pita. Well, I don't know about food from the Middle East. Isn't that whole area a little iffy?
Hostess: [laughs] Hey, I'm no geographer. You and I -- why don't we call it pocket bread, huh?
Maude: [reading the ingredients list] Umm, what's tahini?
Hostess: Flavor sauce.
Edna: And falafel?
Hostess: Crunch patties.
Helen: So, we'd be selling foreign...
Hostess: Specialty foods. Here, try a Ben Franklin.
Helen: [takes a bite] Mmm, that is good. What's in it?
Chef: [poking his head out of a window, looking of Indian origin] Tabbouleh and rezmi-kabob.
Hostess: Uh, th-that's our chef... Christopher.
Chef: [mutters, and closes the window, cursing in Hindi]
posted by turaho at 1:05 PM on November 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


AV: I assumed he was being ironic?
posted by absalom at 1:31 PM on November 7, 2007


Silly. Clearly a much better indicator is a spike in sales in terrorist organization application forms within the terrorist office supply logistics chain.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:04 PM on November 7, 2007





Um, did they ever realize that lots of *Israelis* eat and sell felafel, too.

Also:

Then they came for the acai berry juice, and I did not speak up because it's too damn expensive.

Might not be for much longer, since apparently can sometimes carry horrible parasitic disease

posted by Maias at 3:50 PM on November 7, 2007


And falafels aren't Persian. Stupid FBI brainiacs.

I think this needs to be stressed. I do not recall ever once having seen a single falafel in almost two months spent travelling around Iran.

You know what they're really into, though? Weiner rolls. All these piles of sliced up weiners in different sorts of mostly tomato-based sauces to choose from, scooped onto white bread rolls. Pretty much like cold hotdogs in flavour.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:42 PM on November 7, 2007


This is the kind of prima facie awful idea that should be shot down as soon as it appears in an agent's head - it's so patently stupid that nobody should have been allowed to start data-mining in the first place.

Haven't you ever watched crime shows like CSI? This is exactly the sort of brilliant lateral thinking that invariably leads the crack team straight to the baddie.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:50 PM on November 7, 2007


I was torn about turning this into a new post but figured it didn't quite measure up while this one's still open, so here goes: two articles that fill in a lot more details about Operation Falafel
.
posted by scalefree at 11:02 AM on November 9, 2007




There's some interesting analysis of this whole thing in the comments on Wired (why does that feel weird to say?) in homunculus's link above. Stein's rather testy response to Wired is followed by a bunch of lengthy speculation by user SPD, touching on who specifically in the FBI's upper management might have their fingers in the, er, falafel on this. Personally I have no idea how credulous to be about what he or she is saying but it does make for an interesting read. (No, SPD is not a sockpuppet of mine.)
posted by whir at 6:07 PM on November 29, 2007


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