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.”
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.