Eighth Anniversary of 9/11
On September 30, 2001, I published a special issue of Crypto-Gram discussing the terrorist attacks. I wrote about the novelty of the attacks, airplane security, diagnosing intelligence failures, the potential of regulating cryptography — because it could be used by the terrorists — and protecting privacy and liberty. Much of what I wrote is still relevant today:
Appalled by the recent hijackings, many Americans have declared themselves willing to give up civil liberties in the name of security. They’ve declared it so loudly that this trade-off seems to be a fait accompli. Article after article talks about the balance between privacy and security, discussing whether various increases of security are worth the privacy and civil-liberty losses. Rarely do I see a discussion about whether this linkage is a valid one.
Security and privacy are not two sides of a teeter-totter. This association is simplistic and largely fallacious. It’s easy and fast, but less effective, to increase security by taking away liberty. However, the best ways to increase security are not at the expense of privacy and liberty.
It’s easy to refute the notion that all security comes at the expense of liberty. Arming pilots, reinforcing cockpit doors, and teaching flight attendants karate are all examples of security measures that have no effect on individual privacy or liberties. So are better authentication of airport maintenance workers, or dead-man switches that force planes to automatically land at the closest airport, or armed air marshals traveling on flights.
Liberty-depriving security measures are most often found when system designers failed to take security into account from the beginning. They’re Band-aids, and evidence of bad security planning. When security is designed into a system, it can work without forcing people to give up their freedoms.
There are copycat criminals and terrorists, who do what they’ve seen done before. To a large extent, this is what the hastily implemented security measures have tried to prevent. And there are the clever attackers, who invent new ways to attack people. This is what we saw on September 11. It’s expensive, but we can build security to protect against yesterday’s attacks. But we can’t guarantee protection against tomorrow’s attacks: the hacker attack that hasn’t been invented, or the terrorist attack yet to be conceived.
Demands for even more surveillance miss the point. The problem is not obtaining data, it’s deciding which data is worth analyzing and then interpreting it. Everyone already leaves a wide audit trail as we go through life, and law enforcement can already access those records with search warrants. The FBI quickly pieced together the terrorists’ identities and the last few months of their lives, once they knew where to look. If they had thrown up their hands and said that they couldn’t figure out who did it or how, they might have a case for needing more surveillance data. But they didn’t, and they don’t.
More data can even be counterproductive. The NSA and the CIA have been criticized for relying too much on signals intelligence, and not enough on human intelligence. The East German police collected data on four million East Germans, roughly a quarter of their population. Yet they did not foresee the peaceful overthrow of the Communist government because they invested heavily in data collection instead of data interpretation. We need more intelligence agents squatting on the ground in the Middle East arguing the Koran, not sitting in Washington arguing about wiretapping laws.
People are willing to give up liberties for vague promises of security because they think they have no choice. What they’re not being told is that they can have both. It would require people to say no to the FBI’s power grab. It would require us to discard the easy answers in favor of thoughtful answers. It would require structuring incentives to improve overall security rather than simply decreasing its costs. Designing security into systems from the beginning, instead of tacking it on at the end, would give us the security we need, while preserving the civil liberties we hold dear.
Some broad surveillance, in limited circumstances, might be warranted as a temporary measure. But we need to be careful that it remain temporary, and that we do not design surveillance into our electronic infrastructure. Thomas Jefferson once said: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Historically, liberties have always been a casualty of war, but a temporary casualty. This war — a war without a clear enemy or end condition — has the potential to turn into a permanent state of society. We need to design our security accordingly.