Cost/Benefit Questions NSA Surveillance

John Mueller and Mark Stewart ask the important questions about the NSA surveillance programs: why were they secret, what have they accomplished, and what do they cost?

This essay attempts to figure out if they accomplished anything, and this essay attempts to figure out if they can be effective at all.

Posted on June 19, 2013 at 6:24 AM • 22 Comments

Comments

anonJune 19, 2013 6:54 AM

Generally, car accidents kill as many Americans EVERY MONTH as terrorists killed one day on 911 twelve years ago. Thus, if saving American lives is the goal in the War on Terror, investing in effective mass transit would seem to be a more effective means of accomplishing this, comparatively speaking. You're more likely to be killed by a police officer than a terrorists: mass surveillance justified by terrorism is one of the least effective was to save American lives.

AaytchJune 19, 2013 7:20 AM

If our objective is to "save lives", the efficiency of our methods are appraised very differently than if our objective is to "stop terrorists before they can carry out their objective". I'm not in favor of mass surveillance AT ALL, but it doesn't help our argument to change the objective to "saving lives". It just shows us as having prejudice.

Clive RobinsonJune 19, 2013 7:36 AM

One thing I hate about Cost/Benift analysis is it's base assumptions that are based on a persons point of view.

For instance if you are a Politician then irrespective of how utterly usless this may be now or in the future for it's stated --or otherwise-- aims, it's not going to cost you to get behind it in terms of "political favours" or pork.

However as a citizen with a brain and even limited information will realise the upside of it is not financialy justified by any reasonable measure. But worse the downside cost is pottentialy imense as it can easily be used as a tool of significant repression.

Further at the very least the information could easily reveal peoples likely political affiliation and if supplied to those setting voting boundries a very very effective way to allow Gerrymandering, and elimination of voters prior to elections. Either ensuring the current desired incumbrents maintain their position or elimination of current undesired incumbrents, and thus keep funding to these agencies flowing nicely.

The potential for the agency collecting this information or those it choses to impart the information too to do immense harm is almost incalculable.

In the past in the UK we have seen the "security services" favour various political parties at the expense of others, and the likes of union leaders be "set up" to manipulate union ballots etc. In more recent times we have seen the likes of the Met Police provide selected private agencies and companies with information on peacefull protestors. And in the past few days a court case has concluded that much of the Met Police activities in collecting information and identifing people in the ways they have is beyond what they are legally alowed to do and thus is illegal activity.

If these activities were carried out in a "hollowed out country" or "banana republic" we would say it was evidence of non democratic behaviour tantamount to a police state. What are we to say when the nations involved are the supposed bastions of democratic palimentry process and just legal systems?

SecrecyJune 19, 2013 8:27 AM

"Why were the NSA surveillance programs secret" is the wrong question to ask. I think it's fair to say that what we know about the government's surveillance of Americans is very much less than what we don't know, and that what we don't know should worry us enough to demand real transparency.

vas pupJune 19, 2013 9:06 AM

Could we always handle the truth?
Do we always truthful?
(recall US v. Alvarez recently on this blog) - just asking.

silver liningJune 19, 2013 10:25 AM

It would all be worth it if the NSA would do what the FCC hasn't been able to: piece together the redirection network that telemarketers are using to do illegal robocalling and nail them for it.

daveJune 19, 2013 11:30 AM

Is PRISM simply a reasearch tool? Maybe? If so, that might be the scariest aspect of all.

bodeJune 19, 2013 12:00 PM

Everyone assumes some giant cost for "false positive." I assume "there is an entire giant intelligence apparatus working, and they need something to do."

In my mind, this is like pilots in the air force: we aren't always at war, but we spend billions of dollars every year flying.

So false positives, like spending billions on armed services during peace time, is the cost we're arguing about. I do not see how this is any different.

Richard FritzsonJune 19, 2013 3:24 PM

If the government decided to collect information about every purchase of alcohol, including in restaurants, and car ownership, EZ-Pass uses, etc., they could almost certainly develop algorithms which allowed them to intervene and prevent more deaths from drunk driving incidents than they have been able to prevent from terrorism.

Yes, the "interventions" would include false positives, just as the current program does. And perhaps the FBI would be trying to get some people to drive drunk in order to improve their arrests statistics.

But they would almost certainly save many more lives than the current program does. Is anyone willing to let them do this? I mean, if you're not driving drunk you'd have nothing to fear from this, right?

RobSJune 19, 2013 4:02 PM

Professor John Adams (john-adams.co.uk) had some interesting thoughts on cost-benefit analysis when you put the costs into a "Willingness to Pay"/"Willingness to Accept" framework. "Willingness to Pay" is always constrained by the money available. "Willingness to Accept" has no such bound. He gives examples of mining Uluru/Ayers Rock or putting roads through national parks/urban areas. The aboriginal people would not sell at any (monetary) price so the rock is literally priceless when cost-benefit is framed in terms of willingness to accept. The aboriginal people could pay very little to save the rock from being mined so the rock is also virtually worthless. Whenever there is a cost/benefit analysis you often have incommensurable terms in the equation. It is really hard to figure out the exchange rate between USD and "utilons" or "hedons". Mathematically minded economists prefer to frame everything as "willingness to pay" comparisons because you avoid the infinities that way.

Blaise PascalJune 19, 2013 4:17 PM

Richard, it would be relatively easy right now for the government to use E-ZPass for speed enforcement: the system records when and where you got on the thruway and when and where you got off the thruway. It needs to in order to properly bill you for your travel.

That is enough information to calculate an average speed on the thruway. I have been a bit surprised no one has started sending tickets for speeding based on E-ZPass data.

JackJune 19, 2013 5:48 PM

I think the American public is in a place where they already bought this extremely expensive system and now they can not get out of the purchase.

Because, you know, they voted for all of this, when everyone told them about it. And you know when these things were judged by jury trials, all that went well.

Because, they (these leaders) say it is all legal and does not violate the first and fourth amendments, it really must not.

(Except when they don't, like how the Guardian pointed out how Biden condemned on exactly those grounds a similar system under Bush.)

The above, of course, is all sarcasm, because the American people (and the world) had zero choice about any of this. And they probably will have zero choice about getting out of it now that they are in.

Especially when it is okay for Democrats for Democrats to do this, and okay for Republicans for Republicans to do this: and kind of okay when the other party does it, anyway.

Really sad the older generations are far more approving of all of this, considering many used to be hippies or pro-hippies and lived to see the horrible disclosures in the seventies of governmental abuse.

Price wise, the whole thing is absolutely useless and they should throw it out. I hate to be so unscientific about it. If they are such socialists who think the government can use the money better then they themselves can -- aren't there far more needful programs and places where that money can go?

Pre-1940s, the US was fine without intelligence services. Fun job, great to make movies about, but it is not needed.

Anyone can say they prevented "plots". Jim Bob can say to Betty something and the government can jump in and say "it is a plot".

Arrest them on trumped up charges for something else, then congratulate yourselves. You stopped a terrorist plot and saved the world. You noble soul, you.

Maybe the old rule of law system of "innocent until proven guilty" should be thrown out for this new one everyone is so accepting of. Forget about real crimes, get people for what they have not yet done.

Minority Report, indeed, except without the functional psychics.

paranoia destroys yaJune 19, 2013 6:48 PM

@silver lining
It's good that others have the same thought I did when I heard about the government's use of the data.
Half the calls we get are robocallers. At what point does the increase in phone traffic becomes a systemwide DOS attack?

Another KevinJune 19, 2013 8:17 PM

@Blaise Pascal

The next step beyond automated speeding ticketing based on E-ZPass records will be intentionally setting the clocks at the on-ramps fast and the clocks at the off-ramps slow, so as to catch people whose average speed is somewhat below the speed limit. This prediction is based on the experience of localities' adjusting yellow-light times after they install red-light cameras, to make sure that enough drivers run the red light.

Dirk PraetJune 19, 2013 8:19 PM

In the end it all boils down to a very simple question: how far do you want to go to either make something happen, or prevent it from happening ?
Every year, tens of thousands of people die from car accidents, gun wounds, cancer, poor or unaffordable healthcare etc. etc. It would seem that the general public in the US accepts those as collateral damage to living life the American way.

In the latest weeks, we have learned that US intelligence agencies with the help of major telecommunication and internet companies are secretly spying on pretty much the entire world to prevent terrorist attacks from happening. Moreover, it is sanctioned by POTUS, the administration, Congress and the DoJ using secret orders from secret courts and under secretive interpretations of laws rushed through the legislative system in the wake of 9/11.

Now, statistically, the rather troubling reality is that there really aren't that many competent terrorists around, and the amount of casualties their attacks cause for all practical purposes pales into insignificance when compared to those mentioned above. Still, formidable budgets and resources are being spent to catch them, in the process - and according to a growing number of voices - silently eroding civil liberties and the US Constitution itself.

What I would like to know as a European citizen is to which extent the general US public approves of this as yet another form of collateral damage to the American dream. I understand that 9/11 has caused a massive trauma the size of Pearl Harbor, and that it has been seized, exploited and abused by the military industrial complex and its minions to give rise to nothing less than a surveillance state. According to the latest polls I have seen, the majority of Americans does not seem to approve of this.

The only way to know for sure is for all parties involved to come clean, stop the word games, and the doublespeak and have a formal public debate on the issue. The outcome thereof will decide if the US post 9/11 showed resilience and strength, firmly hanging on to the values of its Founding Fathers, or instead as a nation chose to become a new Soviet Union.

Those familiar with Orwell's Animal Farm probably remember the pigs gradually changing the original Seven Commandments of Animalism. As of late, I am starting to think that certain people in the US have rewritten The Declaration of Independence to read:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all US men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Terrorists.

John David GaltJune 19, 2013 10:13 PM

It is my theory that the terrorists' real objective is to destroy the open, free society that America is supposed to be, and that their most successful method for achieving that objective is to conduct "denial-of-freedom" attacks by provoking knee-jerk responses such as the creation of TSA and the needless militarization of local police forces.

Therefore they have already won, and it's now up to us to undo that victory.

David LeppikJune 20, 2013 10:57 AM

@Blaise Pascal
There is one fatal flaw with using EZ Pass data for catching speeders: people would stop buying EZ Passes. The threat of loss of a reliable opt-in revenue stream is enough to make government officials want to look the other way.

And that's without relying on ethical arguments.

JackJune 22, 2013 12:01 PM

@John David Galt

"It is my theory that the terrorists' real objective is to destroy the open, free society that America is supposed to be, and that their most successful method for achieving that objective is to conduct "denial-of-freedom" attacks by provoking knee-jerk responses such as the creation of TSA and the needless militarization of local police forces.

Therefore they have already won, and it's now up to us to undo that victory."

While I do not believe the US willingly allowed nor engineered 911, I do believe these anti-terrorism moves and these terrorism moves work hand in hand together for the same cause of destruction.

In fact, everyone on here well knows, the more fever pitched they make the sale of "terrorism" (which sounds uncannily like the refrains of any totalitarian state current, past, or in fiction)... the more people buy into this... the more vulnerable the State is to future terrorism.

If any enemy state (and the US is definitely making a lot of global enemies, as opposed to pursuing "sunshine policies" globally) does commit any sizeable act of terrorism in the US -- then the US will become that exact feared totalitarian nightmare future society science fiction has always warned us of.

Which is one of the scariest things about all of this. How the population believed the US did not over react to 911, (somehow, despite the invasion of Iraq with had nothing to do with it) -- because the vast scope of the government's reaction was all performed in secret and hid from the public's eyes.

Now, it is unveiled, in all its' dark ignominy, and the population does not protest, but cheer. Accepting the error, like a cheating husband reveals his girlfriend, hoping his wife will accept her new situation of bigamy.

Her reaction should be to kick the pig of a man out and find someone loyal and true. But, it is, "Oh, okay, I will be wife number two."

:-)


Clive RobinsonJune 22, 2013 1:13 PM

@ John David Gault, Jack,

You both might want to consider who actually showed that the US had become in effect a "weak and feeble nation frightened of a shadow from just a few".

Well it was first the Koreans with Russians/Chinese backing in the Korean war and Secondly and more importantly the VC in South Vitenam.

They showed that the US was frightend by it's own political self belief and the fear of body bags.

In Vietnam the Vietnamese had spent many many years fighting the French and had learnt that even though vastly under resourced militarily compared to the French, the French were not sufficiently determined or equiped to commit the required genocide to stop the Vietnamse fighting what they saw as oppressive invaders.

The US General who set the stratagie for fighting in Vietnam was hampered not just by his own limitations but also by the limitations of Lindon B Johnson who was at best an inefectual President continously scared of public opinion.

The Generals limitations were neatly exposed by a member of the press who asked him if he had studied how France had fought the Vietnamise. The reply from the General was in effect that the French had not won a war in ninty years so what was there to learn from them...

Worse he was an ardant artillary man who despite the lessons of WWI thought that big force attacks by artillary then followed up by infantry was the way to fight.

Well this "European style warfare" was compleatly inappropriate for a jungle and paddie field environment and the Vietnamse knew this from long experiance fighting the French. It was also clear from Burma and other jungle/paddie campaignes during WWII that the most effective way to fight in the environment was small detachments of strike and run forces spread very thinly over wide areas that attacked "targets of oportunity" in the night and then melted away before dawn and the inevitable counter attack was the most benificial way to fight a standing army, closely followed by setting ambush in ground that favourd their hit and run tactics when the standing army tried to advance in number to find them.

The fact that the US did not under LBJ attack the VC etc in North Vietnam and the surrounding countries ment that the supply lines to the VC of arms and amunition etc were not interupted untill Nixon changed the game plan in 1970 but by then the Vietnam war was deeply unpopular in the US and as we now know Nixon used this to discredit political rivals which prolonged the war in a way that made it totaly unwinable.

But importantly the political leaders in North Vietnam realised that the reality of the US public ment that it was not a military put political war and that the US politicians could not wage a longterm war and needed to get out quickly. They realised that fighting to the politics not the military was the way to win, and as we now know it cost over two million vietnamise lives but the US packed up and went home.

All of this formed a very instructive example of what we now call asymetric warfare and we can see with the middle east that unless the standing army is prepared to go down the genocide route not just the battles but also the war are likely to be lost.

Is there another way to fight such wars without resorting to genocide or a hundred or so years of "middle ages" to prevent genocide by balancing up the armaments on both sides?

Well it appears the answer is possibly yes, and thats to play the game in reverse. That is get in hard and fast to stabalise the situation befor refugee movment and criminal warlords happens and move immediatly from military to policing action and get all sides around the negotiating table fast. Whilst also makeing it very clear to the public that the sooner the fighting stops the sooner the "invading stabalising troops" will be gone and the sooner significant economic prosperity will head their way and their lives will be significantly better not just immediatly but for their children and grand children.

It's been done in the past so it's known to be possible in some cases, the question is can it be made to work in the majority of conflicts? They answer to that is only if we try it out almost immediatly a conflict starts, once refugees and warlords occure it is beyond a tipping point which is dificult to address and rebalance.

truthtellerJune 25, 2013 1:05 AM

Both parties have consented to this NSA project reflects either the increasing anxiety of the elites over the possibility of nuclear weapons proliferation and biological weapons attack, or economic collapse due to peak oil (a paradigm change in oil price occurred around 9/11).

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