Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Patriot Act, Terrorism and the Irrationality of Fear (Part 2)

READ: Part 1 here.

“The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.”
James Madison

Now let’s look at the two main arguments that lawmakers and spy agency officials constantly put forward to justify the far reaching and arbitrary nature of the current surveillance programs. Governments around the world agree that acts committed by seemingly normal people with no affiliation to a terrorist group are both the new soup du jour and their greatest fear. Yet, a few honest people in security establishments also add that there is virtually no way to detect or stop these people unless we can find a way to read their minds.

This begs the question whether programs exposed by Snowden, like PRISM, are an attempt by the government (perhaps unwittingly) to build a machine designed to detect an act of terror before it happens? A sort of pre-crime unit like in the one in the Steve Spielberg movie, Minority Report. Is the US government attempting to collect every piece of communication from every citizen, in the hope of trying to establish a pattern of behaviour that might indicate self-radicalization? Proponents of the current NSA programs would have us believe that such a program is the only way for the government and security agencies to keep us safe by stopping lone wolf attacks. 

Many lawmakers defend these programs by talking about the number of terrorist attacks that have been thwarted as a result of this surveillance, but are conveniently unable to provide any statistics due to national security concerns. Both the Justice Department and the FBI have publicly admitted that “in spite of all that added spying, they couldn’t point to one single case that was solved, or one single terrorist act that was thwarted through the use of these Patriot Act provisions.” (Source: Washington Post Article). Some people disagree with this view and argue the opposite, but, since we do not have access to ‘sensitive’ information, let’s look at the last few major terrorist attacks that have been thwarted.

In the case of the Times Square bomber it was a vigilant food vendor that alerted police and not the massive surveillance apparatus the government has built. It was a last minute tip from a Saudi informant that prevented the printer bombs, aboard cargo planes, from exploding in midair en-route to Chicago. The two packages bound for the US, had passed undetected “through four countries in at least four different airplanes, two of them carrying passengers” (source: NY Times). The Nigerian underwear bomber’s father personally went to the US Embassy in Abuja to warn the US government that his son was becoming radicalized. This tip was passed on to counterterrorism officials in the US, yet less than a month later Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab successfully passed through Nigerian and Dutch security using his real identity, paying cash for a one way ticket and never checked luggage – all things that are supposed red flags in our post-9/11 Patriot Act security apparatus. The older brother in the Boston marathon bombings was identified by Russian intelligence, who warned US intelligence that this young man on a path to being radicalized. I guess the NSA’s multi-billion dollar machine did not think so. 

Time after time we have seen that human intelligence is the only surefire way to thwart a terrorist attack. Human intelligence will always be the most valuable and effective way for us to stop any kind of attack, because all attacks require time to plan and the process of radicalisation is visible to the people closest to the would-be terrorist. The attacker needs time to procure bomb-making expertise, buy physical materials and will likely also have some accomplices. A friend, co-worker, family or community member will witness changes in these people; homegrown terrorists do not live in isolation. All of the recent lone wolf terrorists in the US have been well-educated and functioning members of society – but all must at some point have displayed signs of odd behaviour and warning signs to the people around them. This is where we need to focus. 

No amount of reading emails or storing metadata from our Skype and cellphone calls can provide this intelligence. We should focus our energy on winning trust in local communities and educating people to inform authorities the moment they see well-defined warning signs. I am not talking about asking everyone to spy on neighbours, but about picking up on overt changes in behaviour in people we have known all our lives.

One other factor that should concern us is the government’s growing reliance on machines and data. Every data scientist will tell you that ‘too much’ data is worse than having none at all. It can actually hamper one’s ability to prevent attacks because you either miss the needles in the haystack or spread yourself too thin trying to understand and connect every dot. Consider the sheer amount of data being collected today; it requires authorities to cast a much wider net and as a result lose focus on the more important warning signs.  

I am not suggesting that we abandon spying programs or get rid of the entire Patriot Act. Nor am I suggesting that we lay down our arms and meekly accept our fate. We absolutely must be vigilant and put measures in place to prevent attacks, but there also needs to be a discussion about the limits and oversights that must be placed on these programs. Government needs to be more honest about the realities and limits of how safe we can be, rather than pandering to voters and behaving like there is always something more that can be done after a new attack. 

America’s founding fathers were acutely aware of too much power corrupting people and built safeguards into the constitution. Today, our government and security agencies are building deeply sophisticated and frighteningly broad surveillance systems designed to spy on their own citizens in the name of protecting us from acts of terror. The problem is that this is a disingenuous and irrational argument, one that will not make us safer, but will lead to greater abuse of power with less transparency and virtually no accountability.

The question we need to answer is – have we become so irrational in this fear that we would give up freedoms for which our forefathers gave their lives? Are we willing to live in a world where government watches our every move and monitors every form of communication just to find one needle in a vast haystack? I know I do not want to live in such a world. I would rather take my chances and die in a terrorist attack.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Patriot Act, Terrorism and the Irrationality of Fear (Part 1)

“The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.”
James Madison

I believe most can agree that, no matter what your stance on national security, terrorism is and always will be a heinous and cowardly act of violence committed against innocent people, motivated by political, religious or social fanaticism. However, how we chose to let our government protect us and how we decide to fight this cowardly and invisible enemy is a choice we must make. The questions we have to ask ourselves are: How many hard-fought freedoms are we willing to let our government sacrifice in the name of protecting us? And how much privacy are we are willing to give up to feel safer? To say that we need to make an absolute choice between our freedoms and our security is a false argument because it’s impossible to be 100% safe from an enemy that is willing to give up their own lives to take ours. 

This is an extremely important debate given the revelations about the opaque nature with which our government and the NSA have been operating and abusing their powers. They have gone beyond our borders, bypassed our laws and their severely overextended their remit. The NSA no longer felt the need to keep the President of the United States of America informed about some of their spying programs. We urgently need a new framework for the NSA, one that has sufficient and effective oversight by the executive, legislative and the judicial branches of government. The NSA has shown they cannot be trusted, operating with complete impunity, little transparency and zero accountability. Beyond the argument to protect privacy, there are a number of other reasons why the current NSA spying program needs to be curtailed and have some reasonable limits applied to it, before it is too late.

Let’s start with the simple fact that, while fear is an irrational thing, it does have a tangible effect in our daily lives and societies. Take the stock market, for example. It goes up and down based on a number of rational factors, but is also directly driven by irrational sentiment – our level of confidence or lack thereof, in the economy, personal job prospects and optimism or pessimism about our future. So too with terrorism, there are irrational and rational elements that we need to consider when determining the level of security that is reasonable to protect against attacks.

First, security experts around the world agree that the majority of airport security procedures are completely ineffective in preventing an act of terror; yet the TSA’s budget in 2014 was over $7 Billion (source: Wikipedia). There have been numerous studies and reports published on how ineffective the TSA and their methods are (Source: “Airport Security Is Making Americans Less Safe” and “Report Says T.S.A. Screening Is Not Objective” and “TSA Chief Out After Agents Fail 95 Percent of Airport Breach Tests”.) So, if you examine these facts rationally, you could build a strong argument for getting rid of most of these airport security measures, or at the very least cut down on the number of inconveniences travelers face. Yet, the reason for all this security is simple and has little to do with making us more secure on an aircraft. It is psychological and driven by the fact that air travel is vital for global commerce and economic growth.

Imagine if people became too scared to fly - the world and business would come to a grinding halt. So even though the amount of money spent on airport security is disproportionate to the actual security it provides, the visibility and inconvenience makes people feel safer, which in turn helps them go about their daily lives. For this reason, there are sometimes important and valid reasons to make a show of security. There is a tangible economic benefit involved and this is why airports and not train stations, bus depots or sea ports are protected in the same manner. This is also the reason we always see a beefed up security presence on the streets in the aftermath of a terror attack anywhere in the world.

The second thing to weigh in this debate is that we have a disproportionate emotional response to terrorism as compared to every other event that ends with loss of life. Consider our response to the Boston Marathon bombings against our response to the Texas refinery explosion that happened the same week. Three people died in Boston and fifteen in Texas. In Boston, a number of people were maimed; in Texas an entire town was leveled with hospitals, schools and homes all destroyed. Yet, we and the media fixated entirely on the events in Boston and the subsequent manhunt for two young men. Within a few weeks America had donated $61 Million to the OneFund for the Boston victims; while Texas has received little more than $1M of our kindness in that time. I am not arguing that one was less or more devastating than the other, simply pointing out how disproportionate, both our fixation and our tangible responses is to terrorism versus any other calamitous event. Ultimately it is much easier to unite against a common enemy that has a name and face, and get some sense of closure when our government hunts down and kills them.


Sunday, May 17, 2015

What a Ten Year Old Can Teach Us About Salman Khan


“Wrong does not cease to be wrong because the majority share in it.”
Leo Tolstoy


Salman Khan gestures to fans from the balcony of his home, flanked by his mother Sushila Charak and father Salim Khan in Mumbai. (Source: Zee News India) 

There has been much ink spilled over Salman Khan’s recent conviction for drunk driving. Mr. Khan is one of Bollywood’s biggest, most bankable stars and as a result this news has dominated the Indian media landscape for the last few days. Mr. Khan’s recent sentencing to five years in prison has usurped coverage from Narendra Modi, the Indian Premier League and the Nepal earthquake, all subjects that now seem a distant memory in the daily Indian psyche. 

It seems there was an expectation amongst the wealthy elite of the country that this trial would result in a suspended sentence, or perhaps a few years of community service along with a large fine. Much like nothing happened to Sanjeev Nanda, the son of a wealthy industrialist, who killed six people (including three police officers). Or Puru Raj Kumar, the son of a big Bollywood star, who ran over and killed several pavement dwellers, and was never charged. Like the rest of the third world, India too has a rich and un-illustrious history of a dual justice system, one for those who have the means to buy it and the other for the rest of us, who must languish and suffer within it. 

The outrage in India was two-fold. The powerful elite were clearly outraged that a lowly session’s court judge had the audacity to sentence one of theirs. The entire Bollywood fraternity came out unabashedly in support of a man who has blood on his hands, the same fraternity that has stayed notoriously silent on virtually every other important social issue from defending free speech to violence against women. A younger, less erudite and less PR savvy Bollywood group even took to social media blaming the pavement dwellers for putting themselves in harm’s way. One famous Bollywood singer even equated pavement dwellers with dogs.

There was an unsurprising wave of sympathy from die-hard fans of Mr. Khan, a group that would no doubt proclaim his innocence even if any of them had been sitting in the passenger car seat next to Mr. Khan on that fateful night thirteen years ago. One fan drank poison in front of the courthouse in a suicide bid, unable to handle the news of his idol's upcoming rigorous imprisonment. None of this was surprising; one expected both constituencies to play out their scripts and public dialogue in the manner that they did. However, what was surprising is the reaction of a number of educated, middle class people in India. Many of these people came out in support of Mr. Khan, vehemently protesting his conviction.

Their arguments ranged from saying it was grossly unfair to single out Mr. Khan, since no other rich person has had to serve time for the same offence. Some simply said that he was a good man who had done a great deal of charity work, helping many people over the years, and therefore should not be treated like a common criminal. Yet others argued that he was being convicted merely based on his celebrity status and not on the value of the irrefutable evidence against him. This despite the fact that the judge stated in his ruling that “the prosecution had established beyond doubt that the accused was driving the vehicle at the time of mishap.” (Source: Livemint article).

What is frightening about this middle class defence is that it supports and reinforces the notion that it is fine to have two distinct rules of law - one for the haves, and one for the have not’s. Importantly, it also ignores the fact that had Mr. Khan been an ordinary citizen, like you or me, he would not have been able to avoid being in police custody or to drag out his trial over thirteen years. During this time his people were able to buy off and coerce witnesses, turning them hostile and getting them to change or withdraw testimony. One key witness who refused to acquiesce was a police constable who was in the car with Mr. Khan at the time of the accident. Instead of being provided witness protection, he was fired from the police force and thrown into prison after he claimed that he was frightened for his life for refusing to change his statement. His family was most likely also paid off, as they proceeded to also disown him. The man was driven to living on the streets and finally died a pauper, of tuberculosis, in some nameless government hospital.

What is at issue here is not making an example of Mr. Khan, but allowing people like him to make a mockery of our judicial system. My heart goes out to Mr. Khan, his family and to all the other families involved in this tragic and avoidable accident. I don't doubt that Mr. Khan has done a lot of good with his charity work and has a large heart but none of this changes the fact that, according to our laws, he committed a crime. If we want to be a global power, the rule of law must be sacrosanct and justice must be blind. This is a fundamental bedrock of any a civilised democracy.

My mother’s friend has a ten year old grandson who is a self-confessed Salman Khan super fan. He knows all his movies, song lyrics and even dance sequences (much like I used to with Amitabh Bachchan growing up). She was recently chatting with the boy and decided she would broach this subject gently, and with empathy, so as not to hurt the young boy’s feelings. She started to say how bad she felt about the fact that his hero, a good man by all accounts, had been convicted of a crime, but before she could finish her thought, the boy jumped in and said “Daadi, he (Salman Khan) made a mistake and he has to pay for it.”