The Scary Monster of Terrorism vs The Scary Monster of the Surveillance State

In light of recent attacks by DAESH in Paris, Beirut and aboard a Russian plane over Sinai, the debate over encryption and surveillance has reignited. The nations trying to increase their surveillance capabilities have quickly capitalized on these events, stating that they need wider legal authority to surveil their own citizens in order to protect their sovereign lands from foreign attack.

The argument has been that unbreakable encryption is hampering the power for mass surveillance systems to intercept communications and prevent terrorist attacks. And this argument taken on its face is compelling. It is an easy assumption to make if you do not fact check any of the statements being made.

The problems with these arguments arise when you look deeper into the latest terror attacks and what they mean for the world of privacy.

1. The attackers never use "unbreakable" devices. No such device exists. If an individual is targeted by a government agency, the governments have many tools at their disposal to break into these devices and get the information needed. There is a booming business in zero-day vulnerabilities for cracking just about any device and taking full control of its operations. The key element here is that it requires "real" spy resources. The agencies need to identify targets to surveil and use information gained from their targets to spy on others.

2. The main hurdle for intelligence agencies at this time is information sorting and sharing. Adding more hay to the stack makes it far more difficult to find the needle.

3. The information gained by the intelligence agencies is dangerous to the freedom of that nation's citizens. Having "dirt" on anyone that interests the agency gives them an enormous advantage on anyone they wish to manipulate. This kind of manipulatory power can be exercised against anyone, and a maladjusted entity with this level of information about everyone it views as an adversary is dangerous as well as powerful. We need only look as far as the Stasi in East Germany to see the damage that can be done by a powerful surveillance regime. Surveillance in the digital age is more powerful than the Stasi could have ever dreamed of. You have to be careful to consider that the promises of mass surveillance only being used for "terrorism" or to "protect you" will be violated by those who wield that authority.

We have already began to see "mission creep" in the United States regarding advanced digital warfare. Digital surveillance weapons have been used against the Red Cross and Amnesty International, who were investigating Abu Gharib and Guantanamo Bay torture violations, against the "Black Lives Matter" protests in New York and Chicago, against the "Occupy" movement protesting radical inequality and bailouts, in DEA investigations, and even in IRS investigations. None of these examples have anything to do with terrorism, yet here we are.

4. Mass surveillance is expensive. These programs run in the billions of dollars in costs, and are not at all proven to be effective. There's little evidence that allocating the same funds for illegal mass surveillance programs elsewhere in more lawful and ethical intelligence programs would result in a less effective intelligence agency.

The NSA has a program called DACINGOASIS where they tap submarine cables entering and exiting the United States.

How much do you think it costs for the NSA's Special Source Operations to split the data from a new transatlantic cable that moves data at 53000 Gbps?  and then the cost of storing all of that data in a rolling cache? and the cost of storing a lot of it long-term? There is no question that it is unbelievably expensive.

5. The threat of terrorism is overblown by the media. Terrorism is quite scary in its nature. It is the darkest of what humanity can do. Violent acts designed to sway public opinion about some political goal. There is no question that the thought of bombs or gunmen or hijacked aircraft are horrifying to the public, but the facts remain. You are over 500 times as likely to die in a car accident than you are to die of terrorism in the United States. In fact, it would take six Paris attacks per week to match deaths from automobile accidents.

In France, 12000 people die of suicide per year. That's a Paris attack every three days. You're twice as likely to drown in a river in France than to die in a terrorist attack.

Terrorism is, well, terrifying. But to have a nation devote billions of dollars to violate the privacy of its own citizens, and to erode the freedoms of its populace; to face a threat that is minuscule in the grand scheme of life in the western world... all for programs that are not proven to be effective, is insane.
< last
next >