Slouching Towards Big Brother

Bruce Schneier
CNET News.com, January 30, 2004

Last week the Supreme Court let stand the Justice Department's right to secretly arrest noncitizen residents.

Combined with the government's power to designate foreign prisoners of war as "enemy combatants" in order to ignore international treaties regulating their incarceration, and their power to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens without charge or access to an attorney, the United States is looking more and more like a police state.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Justice Department has asked for, and largely received, additional powers that allow it to perform an unprecedented amount of surveillance of American citizens and visitors. The USA Patriot Act, passed in haste after Sept. 11, started the ball rolling.

In December, a provision slipped into an appropriations bill allowing the FBI to obtain personal financial information from banks, insurance companies, travel agencies, real estate agents, stockbrokers, the U.S. Postal Service, jewelry stores, casinos and car dealerships without a warrant--because they're all construed as financial institutions. Starting this year, the U.S. government is photographing and fingerprinting foreign visitors coming into this country from all but 27 other countries.

The litany continues. CAPPS-II, the government's vast computerized system for probing the backgrounds of all passengers boarding flights, will be fielded this year. Total Information Awareness, a program that would link diverse databases and allow the FBI to collate information on all Americans, was halted at the federal level after a huge public outcry, but is continuing at a state level with federal funding. Over New Year's, the FBI collected the names of 260,000 people staying at Las Vegas hotels. More and more, at every level of society, the "Big Brother is watching you" style of total surveillance is slowly becoming a reality.

Security is a trade-off. It makes no sense to ask whether a particular security system is effective or not--otherwise you'd all be wearing bulletproof vests and staying immured in your home. The proper question to ask is whether the trade-off is worth it. Is the level of security gained worth the costs, whether in money, in liberties, in privacy or in convenience?

This can be a personal decision, and one greatly influenced by the situation. For most of us, bulletproof vests are not worth the cost and inconvenience. For some of us, home burglar alarm systems are. And most of us lock our doors at night.

Terrorism is no different. We need to weigh each security countermeasure. Is the additional security against the risks worth the costs? Are there smarter things we can be spending our money on? How does the risk of terrorism compare with the risks in other aspects of our lives: automobile accidents, domestic violence, industrial pollution, and so on? Are there costs that are just too expensive for us to bear?

Unfortunately, it's rare to hear this level of informed debate. Few people remind us how minor the terrorist threat really is. Rarely do we discuss how little identification has to do with security, and how broad surveillance of everyone doesn't really prevent terrorism. And where's the debate about what's more important: the freedoms and liberties that have made America great or some temporary security?

Instead, the Department of Justice, fueled by a strong police mentality inside the administration, is directing our nation's political changes in response to Sept. 11. And it's making trade-offs from its own subjective perspective--trade-offs that benefit it even if they are to the detriment of others.

From the point of view of the Justice Department, judicial oversight is unnecessary and unwarranted; doing away with it is a better trade-off. They think collecting information on everyone is a good idea because they are less concerned with the loss of privacy and liberty. Expensive surveillance and data-mining systems are a good trade-off for them because more budget means even more power. And from their perspective, secrecy is better than openness; if the police are absolutely trustworthy, then there's nothing to be gained from a public process.

When you put the police in charge of security, the trade-offs they make result in measures that resemble a police state.

This is wrong. The trade-offs are larger than the FBI or the Justice Department. Just as a company would never put a single department in charge of its own budget, someone above the narrow perspective of the Justice Department needs to be balancing the country's needs and making decisions about these security trade-offs.

The laws limiting police power were put in place to protect us from police abuse. Privacy protects us from threats by government, corporations and individuals. And the greatest strength of our nation comes from our freedoms, our openness, our liberties and our system of justice. Ben Franklin once said: "Those who would give up essential liberty for temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Since the events of Sept. 11 Americans have squandered an enormous amount of liberty, and we didn't even get any temporary safety in return.

earlier essay: Homeland Insecurity
later essay: Voting Security
categories: National Security Policy
back to Essays and Op Eds

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Co3 Systems, Inc..