The myth of trading privacy for security

Fourteen years after 9/11, most people still don’t understand that giving up our privacy doesn’t make us safer. The Paris massacre proves it.

Since 9/11, which was the most spectacular intelligence failure since the Pearl Harbor attack of 1941, the need for good intelligence about the bad guys has never been more obvious. The Bush Administration was badly embarrassed by the attack on the Towers, which caught them totally by surprise, despite the fact that the Clinton Administration had warned them about it. The problem then wasn’t a lack of intelligence; it was that our analysis of the existing intelligence was so bad. Don’t blame the analysts, either. Blame the people who are telling them what to take seriously and what to ignore. This problem continues to plague both America and our NATO allies. We’ve seen this most recently during the Paris massacre of November 13. For many years now, the citizens of these countries have been subjected to illegal electronic surveillance by their governments. And it’s helped nothing.

Electronic surveillance means dragnet-style intelligence-gathering, harvesting billions of bytes like so many sardines. This is a hugely inefficient enterprise. The harvest of data that results is too much to understand; it is so big that the NSA can’t even get through it all. It’s also a major violation of our right to privacy.

A person could be forgiven for thinking that this violation was justified if it actually prevented terrorist attacks. But as we’ve seen in Paris, it doesn’t. It’s literally useless. If all the intelligence-gathering power of the Five Eyes couldn’t detect that attack before it happened, then it’s all for naught. Our approach to intelligence needs a total shakeup–not to mention our approach to geopolitics. (That’s a topic for another article.) Electronic dragnetting doesn’t work.

No one should object to having his emails scanned if it means stopping the murder of innocents, but it never will mean that. The danger now, as it was after 9/11, is that terrorism is just going to be used as an excuse for further violation of our natural right to privacy. As usual, the innocent people will pay the price for this, while the terrorists continue having their conversations via hand-written note or carrier pigeon or whatever means they’ve discovered will elude the eyes of the snoops.

I would gladly allow any government on the planet to read my email if it would help stop terrorism. But it won’t. Turkey tried twice to notify France about the Bataclan bomber Ismail Mostefai, and France had already been tracking Mostefai since 2010. But even with him so strongly on their radar, they still couldn’t prevent him from helping to kill 129 people. So how can anyone claim that collecting all the world’s electronic data is going to make us safer?

Since 9/11, we have seen all kinds of egregious abuses of power, and the misuse of laws that were never intended to be used for anything but stopping terrorists. We’ve also seen an almost incomprehensible level of intrusion by the NSA into our personal lives. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know that the US government has installed back-door surveillance tools into an unknown number of personal computers and peripheral devices. These devices ultimately connect back to the NSA and, presumably, report on the activity of their owners. But there is no reason to assume that they report only on suspicious activity; unless they are somehow ingeniously programmed to separate terrorist activity from lawful activity, we can assume they are simply reporting on everything. It’s up to the spooks to decide what’s good and what’s bad.

“I don’t mind,” you might say. “It’s okay with me if they read my email to my wife telling her to pick up the dry-cleaning on the way home from work, if it makes us a little safer.”

The problem is two-fold: (1) It doesn’t make you safer, and (2) it actually leaves you more exposed. Eventually, laws like this are used against the citizens of the countries they were meant to protect. People in power just can’t help themselves. It’s too tempting.

To give just one example: since the Patriot Act was made law, much has been made of the fact that the border zone in the territorial US was extended to 100 miles. Because your Constitutional rights don’t apply in a border zone, that means roughly 200 million Americans can be stopped and searched at any time as they go about their business. What most people don’t know is that the border zone was created in 1953, when we had only 1,100 border agents. We now have over 21,000, and their abuses against innocent people–dragnets, random stops, illegal searches, senseless intimidation–are well documented by the ACLU.

The misuse of laws for political reasons is nothing new, of course. Look at the Espionage Act of 1917. That was the year the US entered World War I. The Act was supposed to protect the country against German spies. Instead, it was used to imprison nearly 2,000 people whose main crime was speaking out against the war, or espousing Socialist or Communist philosophies, which were directly opposed to the massive corporate interests who then, as now, owned the American government. One of the most famous of these was Eugene V. Debs, a legitimate five-time candidate for the office of President of the United States, arrested and imprisoned for ten years for a speech that “obstructed recruiting.” (He ended up serving four years.) The Act’s most recent famous violator is none other than Edward Snowden, who wanted the people of the world to know the extent to which our governments were invading our lives.

Snowden has also been blamed for the Paris attacks, because it was he who alerted the world that our right to privacy was being violated, and because he has advocated strong encryption. This is total nonsense. Again, the intelligence on the attackers was already there. It was simply badly analyzed. The Paris massacre didn’t happen because the attackers were using Tor. Yet I predict that very shortly, this is going to be used as an excuse to try to make encryption illegal. It’s already been tried in Britain.

The main threat I see is this: eventually, these intelligence-gathering powers are going to be used for the wrong reasons, by the wrong people. Crooked politicians will use them to stifle opposition by reading the emails of their opponents. Or they will find out who among the citizenry is against them and find trumped-up reasons to ruin their lives. Or the police will arrest you because they didn’t like the conversation you had on your cell phone. Or some other terrible abuse is going to happen. How do I know? Because people are people, because power corrupts, because history tells me so. As long as this power exists, there will be someone who is willing to misuse it. And it’s not going away, either. Intelligence-gatherers would never in a million years deprive themselves of any tool, no matter how ineffective. We can legislate against it all we want, but they will simply continue to use it in secret, as they have been all along. We cannot hope to eliminate electronic surveillance from our lives. We can only hope to use the principles of democracy to force them to respect our rights, and to not stand idly by when those rights are violated in the name of security.

Lately a well-worn meme has been circulating around the internet, attributed to Ben Franklin: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” This was apparently written by Franklin in response to a totally different situation, one which had nothing to do with protecting the people from the government, and since the mid-20th century has been greatly misinterpreted. In fact, it is already the case that we are trading a great deal of both privacy and security, and both to the same party: the U.S. government–sometimes in the guise of the TSA, sometimes a border agent, sometimes a police officer, sometimes a member of one of the other 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies who work on intelligence and homeland security in 10,000 locations across the United States. And remember, if you’re not American, these agencies are still spying on you. The US has an agreement with Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand by which each nation spies on the others’ citizens, then shares the information. This is well known, and perfectly legal, which is no surprise considering who makes the laws in the first place.

What astonishes me is how many people are okay with this. Some people are convinced that allowing the government total access to our lives is going to save us. These people are scared. They’re also not thinking very clearly.

We shouldn’t have to give up our dignity, our self-respect, or our respect for those who enforce our laws and protect our borders to be safe… but we have. And yet, as November 13 makes painfully clear, we don’t have security at all. We have what Bruce Schneier calls “security theater.” Security theater is security that looks great but doesn’t work. Even as I was writing the first draft of this post, there was yet another instance of the TSA failing to detect a loaded gun in a man’s luggage. If they can’t find a loaded weapon in a suitcase, why am I not allowed to carry a jar of my homemade pickles on board a flight from Halifax to Toronto? Answer: because it shatters the willing suspension of disbelief we all adopt when we get on an airplane… which is not unlike the same suspension of disbelief we agree to whenever we go to a play or a movie.

As the poor people of Paris have recently found out, we have increasingly militarized and paranoid societies that are just as vulnerable as they ever were. Fourteen years after 9/11, we seem to have learned nothing about gathering good intelligence. Twelve years after our second invasion of Iraq, we’re seeing a rise to power of the generation of Muslims who were raised with the daily threat of sectarian war and American violence, not to mention grinding poverty. That’s who daesh is. This is George W. Bush’s legacy writ large, and it’s exactly what he wanted: global war against an entire ideology. We fell for it, not because we were forced to, but because so many of us wanted to.

We’re all getting what some of us asked for.