The Knees Keep Jerking In 2010
The new year opens with governments around the world showing that their most imaginative response to terrorism is to crack down further on innocent citizens everywhere. Viva, the War on Terror! As if further proof were needed that states lack the critical capacity to examine their own actions and characters, governments left and right have decided that the principal appropriate response to recent acts of intended and actual violence is to abandon any appreciation of risk management and go for a zero-tolerance, 100%-security option.
So, it’s all systems go for full-body scanners at airports! Let’s fire up theInterception Modernisation Programme! Load up the cyber-bombs, lads, we’re going to launch pre-emptive strikes in cyberspace! Expect security vendors to have a bonanza year.
Forgive my scepticism but really, does anyone truly believe that increasing ‘security’ in these ways is going to make any real difference to the central purpose of counterterrorism, i.e. to prevent acts of terrorism taking place? There is no surer sign of the hollowness of many counterterrorism policies than kneejerk calls formore CT measures once a failure occurs. We would do far better to improve our current systems than to plaster on additional layers of restriction and invasions of privacy.
The most significant failure ahead of the thwarted Delta Flight 253 plot was not Schiphol airport security but of the US intelligence community, including the National Security Agency, State Department, CIA, and possibly the National Counter-Terrorism Center. Together they managed not to process effectively information already collected under the existing security regime. It’s not that the CT procedures in place can’t work but that the processes currently in operation did not function properly on this occasion. The failure to integrate already extensive global intelligence networks is not the fault of law-abiding citizens, and we should not be held accountable for the actions of a few extremists. The problem is one that will be familiar to students of Information Theory 101: information does not equal knowledge.
If I follow 25,000 people on Twitter, this does not make me wise. It’s all very well absorbing information osmotically, as it were, but how does this help me to make decisions, or to parse vast tracts of data to inform appropriate responses and effect positive outcomes? I need to be able to filter that information somehow, so I can use it intelligently. This is the challenge that faces those who call for massive monitoring and data-gathering programmes like the IMP that may, rather than help counterterrorism, actually hinder it. You can have too much of a good thing, particularly if the data you seek are buried in a mass of irrelevant data. There’s a scene in The Simpsons Movie (2007, 2 stars in the Stevens film reviews) in which an NSA operative in a room full of eavesdropping peons rejoices when he finally overhears a US citizen plotting something subversive. All those billions of dollars―and the erosion of civil liberties―and Uncle Sam learns only of a little girl’s plans to save a local lake from toxic dumping.
Supporters of such schemes do not understand the Law of Diminishing Returns. They will say that the answer to this conundrum is simple and twofold: if we employ more people, and ramp up the technology, the system will yield the results we want. Wrong. The answer―unless we really want total surveillance―is to improve how we use information rather than a priori increase the amount we gather. Something nasty will always slip through the net and the sooner governments accept that total security is impossible, the sooner we can jettison the absurd myopia of this ‘war’ on terrorism and get on with our lives. Whilst we allow politicians to continue to make political capital out of this charade, Abu Musab al-Suri must be laughing all the way to the exercise yard.