We have argued that terrorism is a limited problem with limited consequences and that the reaction to it has been excessive, and even delusional. Some degree of effort to deal with the terrorism hazard is, however, certainly appropriate—and is decidedly not delusional. The issue then is a quantitative one: At what point does a reaction to a threat that is real become excessive or even delusional?
At present rates, as noted earlier, an American’s chance of being killed by terrorism is one in 3.5 million in a given year. This calculation is based on history (but one that includes the September 11 attacks in the count), and things could, of course, become worse in the future. The analysis here, however, suggests that terrorists are not really all that capable, that terrorism tends to be a counterproductive exercise, and that September 11 is increasingly standing out as an aberration, not a harbinger. Moreover, it has essentially become officially accepted that the likelihood of a large-scale organized attack such as September 11 has declined and that the terrorist attacks to fear most are ones that are small scale and disorganized. Attacks such as these can inflict painful losses, of course, but they are quite limited in their effect and, even if they do occur, they would not change the fatality risk for the American population very much.
The key question, then, is not “Are we safer?” but rather one posed shortly after September 11 by risk analyst Howard Kunreuther, “How much should we be willing to pay for a small reduction in probabilities that are already extremely low?” That such questions are not asked, and that standard considerations of acceptable risk are never broached, suggests denial at best and delusion at worst.
Since September 11, expenditures in the United States on domestic home-land security alone—that is, excluding overseas expenditures such as those on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—have expanded by more than $1 trillion.
According to a careful assessment by a committee of the National Academy of Sciences in a 2010 report, these massive funds have been expended without any serious analysis of the sort routinely carried out by DHS for natural hazards such as floods and hurricanes. The committee could not find “any DHS risk analysis capabilities and methods” adequate for supporting the decisions made, noted that “little effective attention” was paid to “fundamental” issues, was (with one exception) never shown “any document” that could explain “exactly how the risk analyses are conducted,” and looked over reports in which it was not clear “what problem is being addressed.”
Similar conclusions emerged from a study focusing on intelligence spending by Dana Priest and William Arkin. They calculate that it has increased by 250 percent since September 11 “without anyone in government seriously trying to figure out where the overlaps and waste were”—an apt description of a delusionary process. After receiving a “steady diet of vague but terrifying information from national security officials,” they continue, American taxpayers “have shelled out hundreds of billions of dollars to turn the machine of government over to defeating terrorism without ever really questioning what they were getting for their money. And even if they did want an answer to that question, they would not be given one, both because those same officials have decided it would gravely harm national security to share such classified information—and because the officials themselves don’t actually know.”
Glenn Greenwald: Why Privacy Matters
The NSA’s program for collecting telecommunication metadata will continue for ninety more days according to Ars Technica. Of course your pictures, emails, chats, documents, and other internet data are being collected under the authority of Executive Order 12333. Here’s some more information about EO12333 from the ACLU. Interestingly, however, it seems Microsoft is currently fighting a warrant to hand over emails stored on their servers in Ireland.
I think the Microsoft story will end up being a lesson in futility. Privacy advocates have been calling for NSA reforms regarding domestic spying. Keep in mind, however, if NSA spying is somehow limited, the rest of the Five Eyes (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom) can fill the vacuum that NSA leaves. So, we just end up playing surveillance whack-a-mole with friendlies—limit NSA and GCHQ (UK) picks up the slack, limit GCHQ and Canada picks up the slack, and so on. If somehow Rule of Law prevails, and the Five Eyes are prevented from dragnet surveillance on their own citizens, it won’t prevent not-so-friendlies such as China (recommend reading @War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex by Shane Harris) and outright hostiles from spying on us.
The by now famous (or infamous) NSA leaker Edward Snowden challenged HOPE (Hackers on Planet Earth) Conference attendees, in July of 2014, to develop privacy tools that are easy to use. It would seem, then, that the goal is to encrypt your data at the source and decrypt data at the destination locking out snoopers—friendlies and hostiles—in transit. Is strong yet easy to use encryption the next killer app?