To Catch a Crooked Ref: Audit

Bruce Schneier is widely recognized as one of the world's foremost authorities on security. He has a fascinating blog, was recently interviewed at length on the Freakonomics blog, and has written several books.

In September, he wrote an essay that was published by Wired News, about what the NBA could to keep crooked referees out of the game:

Of all major sports, basketball is the most vulnerable to manipulation. There are only five players on the court per team, fewer than in other professional team sports; thus, a single player can have a much greater effect on a basketball game than he can in the other sports. Star players like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James can carry an entire team on their shoulders. Even baseball great Alex Rodriguez can't do that.

Because individual players matter so much, a single referee can affect a basketball game more than he can in any other sport. Referees call fouls. Contact occurs on nearly every play, any of which could be called as a foul. They're called "touch fouls," and they are mostly, but not always, ignored. The refs get to decide which ones to call.

Even more drastically, a ref can put a star player in foul trouble immediately -- and cause the coach to bench him longer throughout the game -- if he wants the other side to win. He can set the pace of the game, low-scoring or high-scoring, based on how he calls fouls. He can decide to invalidate a basket by calling an offensive foul on the play, or give a team the potential for some extra points by calling a defensive foul. There's no formal instant replay. There's no second opinion. A ref's word is law -- there are only three of them -- and a crooked ref has enormous power to control the game.

It's not just that basketball referees are single points of failure, it's that they're both trusted insiders and single points of catastrophic failure.

These sorts of vulnerabilities exist in many systems. Consider what a terrorist-sympathizing Transportation Security Administration screener could do to airport security. Or what a criminal CFO could embezzle. Or what a dishonest computer-repair technician could do to your computer or network. The same goes for a corrupt judge, police officer, customs inspector, border-control officer, food-safety inspector and so on.

The best way to catch corrupt trusted insiders is through audit. The particular components of a system that have the greatest influence on the performance of that system need to be monitored and audited, even if the probability of compromise is low. It's after the fact, but if the likelihood of detection is high and the penalties (fines, jail time, public disgrace) are severe, it's a pretty strong deterrent.

In a way, this is reassuring. What this tells us, that's valuable, is that there isn't some other magic solution out there that no one has discussed. Auditing -- essentially what the NBA says they do now -- is what at least this independent expert says should be done.

What's troubling, though, is that those NBA audits have never -- to my knowledge -- resulted in anything noticeable. While I'm sure it happens all the time, I'm not aware of a referee ever having been disciplined or fired because of audit results. (We heard that Tim Donaghy was once kept from lucrative playoff assignments because he was a hothead, but I've never heard such a tale about someone performing poorly or suspiciously.) That "public disgrace" element has not come into play. On the contrary, with one exception, in public referees are only ever defended by those who have seen the audit results.

Maybe that's because it has never been warranted.

We did, of course, have that one referee who was doing about as bad a thing as a referee could do -- but he was not detected by the old audit system. In fact, even after the whole Tim Donaghy story had been made public, and everyone went hunting evidence, no one found much of anything convincing by going through the kinds of things (whistle-blowing trends, video) you'd look at in an audit.

Maybe that is part of the reason that attorney Lawrence Pedowitz's report to the NBA -- David Stern first referenced its findings ages ago, isn't it done yet? -- still hasn't been released. What kind of audit system can the NBA put in place ensure that the next Tim Donaghy will be caught without a hot tip from the FBI?

No easy answers. But, say it with me one more time, I'm quite sure that transparency would help. Getting some sunlight in the system -- and more eyeballs on more real information -- could only help.