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Big Surveillance, Little Coverage

June 25, 2013

If you listen to the hype, the biggest bomb dropped on the United States in the War on Terror™ wasn’t an actual bomb. Instead, the United States’ body politic was shocked, shocked, to hear that the government has been collecting vast amounts of cell phone records, cell phone location data, and just about all of your online information from just about every major Internet platform (Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, AOL, Yahoo, Skype, and PalTalk[?]). Basically, this information adds up to enough to predict your movements, who talks to whom, and anything you have ever entered into a search bar in a moment of curiosity.

The public shock and temporary outrage has seemed more surprising to some of us than the actual program, the ominously named PRISM, the legalities of which had been settled since the Patriot Act was renewed. But the story has some staying power; it seems to be the dominant narrative in American and European news media right now, despite the fact that countries like Russia and China have taken the news with a bit of a shrug, as if to say, “how did you think these things were done?”

So, has the slumbering giant finally woken? Has this leak precipitated the freak-out that privacy advocates have been waiting for?

No, probably not. In fact, despite the hype, this is hardly anything new. Those like myself who have long advocated more privacy, and observed the likely deleterious effects of public ignorance and deference to the presumedly well-meaning authorities, could say that we saw this coming. Most of us had sort of expected that this sort of spying and data collection was already happening. It’s something the American psyche has long emotionally accepted, the culmination of a series of steps down the road to the inevitable Hobbesian Leviathan.

And how does the Leviathan react to this story? To shift the blame, of course.

That blame, according to the Administration, lies with the whistleblower/leaker/future Hollywood Blockbuster pro-/an-tagonist Edward Snowden, the latest in the Bradley Manning mold of Americans who have decided to conscientiously object to the surveillance state that Americans have been settling into. So now the story has shifted to this man, a literally ad hominem attack, in order to distract and mislead the news media into thinking that the person who collected information on the surveillance state is more important than the surveillance state itself.

Of course, the fact that Snowden himself leaked these documents isn’t anything new. Bradley Manning and Julian Assange were both denounced and lionized for their roles in previous leaks of government misconduct. Manning now faces arcane charges and unspeakable (literally) treatment for his “treason” (read: whistleblowing), and Assange has had to make careful legal moves internationally to avoid extradition for crimes that are barely a pretext for thumbing his nose at the US government. There is at least one consensus among U.S. lawmakers: Snowden committed treason. Presumably they would say the same of Daniel Ellsburg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers. People who cry treason tend to lack a long view on history, after all; they forget that transparency about how government operates serves our democracy more than treason prosecutions.

So Snowden sacrificed his $200,000 salary, his girlfriend with whom he shared a home in Hawaii, and his family, adopting a life of exile because the Obama administration has been hunting down anyone who leaks anything even minimally unflattering. One might say that this incident reinforces the fact that we need some protection for whistleblowers and the places that receive their information (like Wikileaks) so that the public can be involved in the decision of whether this trade-off is appropriate or necessary. As Ellsburg puts it, how else can we evaluate whether “the machinery of our democratic government has entirely broken down“?

At a hearing of the Senate intelligence committee in March this year, Democratic senator Ron Wyden asked James Clapper, the director of national intelligence: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”

“No sir,” replied Clapper.

The scariest part of the program may in fact be just how tone-deaf the security administration is to how evil it sounds. I mean, there are pretty obvious flaws in the logic of the lumbering institutions that we don’t seem to question, like “If the NSA trusted Edward Snowden with our data, why should we trust the NSA?” and “Have we just built all of the infrastructure a tyrant could possibly want?

Obama’s part in all this (given that Presidents usually have to operate at a distance and only set out grand strategic objectives rather than specific tactical choices) seems to have been to buy into the Big Data mindset when it comes to the issue of terrorism. Instead of trying to figure out why terrorism exists, and to eradicate its causes (which seemed to be his promise during his first presidential campaign), he has adopted the institutionally generated strategem of trying to figure out what data there is to help find and eradicate the terrorists that currently exist. This was the same flawed logic of the Bush Administration, which galvanized the Middle East, making the new leaders that pop up in the places of the old even more extreme and dangerous. We’re contributing to the evolution of terrorism by forcing them to undergo survival of the fittest.

Obama’s biggest fault may be that he isn’t the philosopher king we foolishly thought he was.

And while the news media has done a surprisingly admirable job expressing outrage at lack of Obama-promised transparency and the vastness of the government intrusiveness and surveillance, they haven’t done a very good job building a case of why any of this matters to Americans. Sure, observers have wryly mocked the name of the program, PRISM, as well as the portal by which analysts access these vast troves of data, Boundless Informant, and its fittingly cartoonish and evil objectives. I’m sure many Americans see this as another opportunity to hate on Obama, regardless of what they think about the actual program. And some have even outlined the serious injuries Americans have sustained to any shred of privacy they once held (e.g., the fact that you can basically be criminally prosecuted at any time given enough information about your internet activities).

However, what the conversation forgets (or at least is content to simply sigh at) is that Americans don’t care about privacy. It has long been established that Americans today would rather trade security for liberty. Americans believe that the fullest extent of counter-terror measures available should be taken, including widespread (read: total) surveillance if necessary. They frankly have no conception of a cost benefit analysis when it comes to terror, which just makes this episode the latest tip of the Leviathan to rear its increasingly ugly head.

When you look at terrorism in light of any other possible subject of comparison, the numbers just don’t add up. In 2001, compared to approximately 3,000 deaths due to terrorism (the absolute peak, of course):

  • 71,372 people died of diabetes;
  • 29,573 people were killed by guns; and
  • 13,290 people were killed in drunk driving accidents.

When you compare those numbers across a larger, more “regular” interval, like 1990 to 2010, the numbers are far worse:

  • roughly 360,000 were killed by guns (actually, the figure the CDC gives is 364,483 — in other words, it’s easy to round off more gun deaths than there were total terrorism deaths); and
  • roughly 150,000 were killed in drunk-driving accidents.
gun and terrorism graphic.png

Measured in lives lost, during an interval that includes the biggest terrorist attack in American history, guns posed a threat to American lives that was more than 100 times greater than the threat of terrorism. Over the same interval, drunk driving threatened our safety 50 times more than terrorism.

So the annual U.S. terror fatality risk for 1970-2007 is about 1 in 35,000,000. Let’s ask the why question now: how much marginal reduction are we getting from mass spying? Is this a sound strategy?

Sometimes we get the anecdotal success stories like the Boston bombers being caught through the use of expansive surveillance, or like how federal agents make arrest in connection to ricin letters by using technology that photographs every piece of mail sent through the USPS. But we’re not really closer to understanding why these crimes happen, let alone honestly dealing with the psychology that leads to mass shootings like Sandy Hook (gee, does anyone even remember that?).

But the point is that we are totally being outplayed on the strategic level by committing to mass spying as a cost-effective solution. Do we attach a breathalyzer to every car steering wheel by the same logic? How about a camera near every pool or home appliance that could electrocute a toddler? These strategies would seem to have far greater returns, but they’re not TERRORISM, so you can forget about it.

As Band-Aids go, Big Data is excellent. But Band-Aids are useless when the patient needs surgery. In that case, trying to use a Band-Aid may result in amputation.

Reporting these kinds of stories is hard, of course. And when you’re trying to deliver news that an audience wants to consume, it makes sense to focus on the theatricality of the spies and spooks rather than complex, philosophical questions about strategy and ephemeral values like privacy.

In the words of Newton Minnow, “Some say the public interest is merely what interests the public. I disagree.” A fitting corollary might be that some say that national security is whatever it takes to secure the nation. I respectfully disagree.

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