The World’s Governments Cannot End Terror Attacks with Mass Surveillance

It doesn’t matter where you live, or what time in history you happen to have lived. Whenever something bad happens to your country, your government will react — overreact — in a way that is ultimately counterproductive.

Here’s an example: in 1798, less than ten years after the US constitution and the Bill of Rights were ratified, the United States was embroiled in the Quasi-War, a series of naval battles with revolutionary France. In order to strengthen national security at home, a series of four laws were passed. They were known collectively as the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Acts increased the residency requirement for American citizenship, allowed President John Adams to freely imprison or deport resident immigrants and residents who were deemed dangerous or sympathetic to the French, and allowed the president to restrict free speech when it was critical of his administration.

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that instead of using this power to secure the nation against attacks by the French, President Adams instead used his power to imprison and deport his political enemies. Again, this all took place just after our constitution had been ratified, and during the lifetimes of many founding fathers.

I make this point because we clearly haven’t learned a thing since the late 18th century. The USA Patriot Act, the UK’s “Snoopers Charter,” CISA, the continuing effort to make cryptography illegal, and the current state of emergency in France all represent gravely serious opportunities for governments to harm and suppress their own citizens. Here’s why:

Governments Want to Surveil Their Citizens, Period

Contrary to popular belief, the USA Patriot Act was not developed in response to the 9/11 attacks. Rather, the Patriot Act was waiting for the 9/11 attacks. Most of the core tenets of the Patriot Act were proposed and dismissed well before 2001. The authors of the Patriot Act knew that under peacetime conditions, no one in their right mind would accept the implications of the act, which included mass surveillance, and extraordinary rendition. Instead, they wrote it and then put it in a desk drawer until something terrible happened.

Similarly, back in October, proponents of placing government backdoors in encrypted software decided that the political climate wasn’t quite right, but that it could change suddenly. Now, after a massive terror attack in a major European capital, the cries for forced decryption are springing up again like clockwork. These people are claiming that the Paris attackers used encrypted software, but there’s absolutely no evidence that was the case. Furthermore, forced decryption wouldn’t even work as a viable anti-terror tool, as all terrorists would need to do to thwart it would be to program their own encrypted software.

In the meantime, over in the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron is already using the Paris tragedy as an excuse to push through his own Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, or the “Snooper’s Charter” as it is popularly known. This bill would not only mandate government backdoors into encrypted software, but also imprison anyone who notified the public about specific intrusions. Again, there’s no reason to suspect that the Paris attackers would have been deflected by a backdoor of this kind.

In short, the governments of the world dearly want to surveil their citizens en masse, and they will obfuscate, lie, pander, and exploit your fear in order to do it.

Mass Surveillance Doesn’t Work

Mass surveillance doesn’t do a damn thing to stop terrorism. Think of the Boston Marathon bombings. Those deadly events, which took place only a few hundred yards away from my office at the time, were absolutely undeterred by the most comprehensive spying program in the history of the world. In fact, the comprehensive nature of that surveillance program in all likelihood worked against it.

According to Edward Snowden, all the cellphone and email metadata that the NSA is sucking down just sort of… gets in its own way. This makes sense, when you think about it. Imagine all the hundreds and thousands of petabytes of data that the NSA has collected and stored — data on everyone in the US who has ever used a phone or been on the internet, and millions of foreign nationals besides. How do you sort through all of that? Well, if the NSA’s track record on preventing terrorism is any indication, they don’t. Not only do they fail to prevent terrorism by foreign nationals, they seem to completely ignore the most common form of terrorism, which always seems to involve a white male US citizen, with legally purchased guns, going into a school or a church or a doctor’s office and shooting everyone he can find.

While the NSA has ended its phone surveillance program as of November 29th, it is still busily gathering all the email and internet records that it wants. At this point, based on the utter lack of effectiveness of this and other programs, I cannot imagine why this is allowed to continue. I cannot believe that even the director of the NSA can tell himself, at this point, that his program is working. If you put a gun to my head, I’d say that the benefits of running a successful government program include a large office, a large salary, plenty of discretionary spending allowances, and of course, invitations to the most exclusive Washington parties.

In short, the program must now exist only to sustain those who advocate for it. We cannot let them do this. More tragedies will happen, and greater ones. As a country, and as an international community, we must not bargain away our civil rights, even in the face of fear.

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