This post will not make you feel safe from terrorism, and it surely will not reassure you about your digital privacy. In fact, I will ask questions and provide no solutions as none appear to exist.
On September 11, 2016, a discussion on Reddit posed several questions on terrorism to a panel of experts from TRAC . Following the release of the movie Snowden, the responses to those questions may have gained deeper context. One question was “What would you say is the most important aspect of fighting terrorism around the world?” Another person asked, “How much blame can be put on the leaders of this country and policy decisions for the state of terrorist activity in the world today?” Though the thread is no longer available, the responses were varied depending on which expert responded. In one of my responses, I mentioned the fact that personal privacy may be violated by intelligence authorities in the prospect of national security. I also do not think national leaders are responsible for individuals engaging in acts of terrorism. After watching the fact-based film Snowden, several questions raced through my mind. Would the American public be willing to accept another 9/11-level event to protect their privacy? At what point would a nation willingly draw a line and advance no further in intelligence collection technology and activities toward its citizens who have broken no laws?
Let’s use Japan as a quick case study. In 1989, a Japanese apocalyptic cult called Aum Shinrikyo gained religious protections under Japan’s Religious Corporations Law. Through the protections afforded Aum, they engaged in chemical and biological terrorism on a scale never before seen. Although they carried out numerous attacks, the only one which achieved notable success was their attack on the Tokyo subway with Sarin nerve agent. Had the Japanese law enforcement officials been permitted to pursue suspicions through enhanced surveillance, perhaps that attack could have been stopped.
More recently, the apparent attacks by Ahmad Khan Rahami in New York and New Jersey on September 17-18, 2016 highlight the impossibly difficult challenge of preventing lone wolf extremist attacks. After the Snowden information release in 2013, it is not publically known if pervasive data collection is still being conducted against US citizens. Regardless, numerous lone wolf attacks in recent years seem to demonstrate that US intelligence collection systems are useful in a responsive role following attacks, but are not effectively able to find the terrorist needle in an enormous haystack.
With those considerations in mind, let’s get back to the original questions. Would the American public be willing to accept another 9/11-level event to protect their privacy? I believe a majority of Americans would vote for increased personal privacy if only because they feel they would never be affected by a terrorist attack or that their personal data would be of any contribution to preventing a terrorist attack. If personal digital privacy is fully restored and another large attack was to occur, there is bound to be a public outcry for more protection, but at what cost? In this case, it is doubtful that the public would assume a fair share of the responsibility which the cost of their privacy would command.
This begs the hypothetical dilemma: at what point would a nation willingly draw a line and advance no further in intelligence collection technology and activities toward its citizens who have broken no laws? Let’s say there was a technological breakthrough in the pre-9/11 world that would have allowed US intelligence officials to gather information about a developing plan to fly airlines into the World Trade Center. This marvel of technology was incredibly powerful but would inevitably infringe on personal privacy in the course of performing its tasks. Would the violation of individual rights be justified? Is your privacy worth the potential loss of thousands of lives? How can national leaders balance protecting individual freedoms and personal security? On the slippery slopes of ethical ambiguity, how do we move forward as a nation against a rapidly evolving and determined enemy who lives among us, yet still protect the foundational rights this country was founded on? Are these eternally rhetorical questions?
Author: Captain Kelley Williams, MS
Analytical Science Officer, Assoc. Director CBRN Defense, and TRAC Consultant.