Bruce Schneier on the NSA’s Surveillance 3: Misperceptions of Terrorism

The collocutors are now shifting the focus over to issues of defining terrorism and the role of corporate profit and political power in today’s NSA activities.

– The fix is bringing all out into the open?

– Yes. Like with any other program, we have to know if what they’re doing is legal, if it makes sense, if it’s justified, if it’s cost-effective, and if we as society want them to do it.

The argument I sometimes hear is that if you do that the terrorists will know. That doesn’t even pass the laugh test. That’s ridiculous. And I think there are two different definitions of secrecy that are confused in that argument. There’s operational secrecy – the names of the people we are spying on, the suspected terrorists we are following electronically. Of course that needs to be secret, and no one ever says otherwise. The other part is the existence of these programs, the cost of these programs, the effectiveness of these programs. Those things in anything resembling a democracy need to be made public and should be made public. And they won’t affect our security. In fact, we are much less secure if the government can do these things in secret.

– I want to circle back round this a little bit. You’ve talked about how we’re doing all of this because of fear, and I think one of your books addressed that issue as well. I know we’re in a climate where fear has been manufactured and multiplied, but are we really doing this out of fear, or are we doing this for other reasons, like corporate profit or political power? Or are there a variety of other reasons other than just protecting our interests?

– I think it’s a mix. I think fear is the primary motivator. I think when these programs started, the government was legitimately scared and wanted to do everything they could to stop any other terrorist attack, and maybe that was personal fear and political fear, or mungled in, but there was enormous fear. The Patriot Act was passed almost unanimously, which is crazy when you think about it. But everyone was scared, and when you’re scared you need to be tough on terrorism, tough on crime. You don’t want to get it wrong by being too soft.

A lot of these programs have morphed into large political power blocks, so yes, now it’s about political power. A lot of this is outsourced, so now you do have corporate power wanting them to continue, because they are profitable. So once it becomes institutionalized, all those other things come into play.

You’ve got Mitch McConnell who used to run the NSA, now he’s at Booz Allen Hamilton; he is one of the big cheerleaders for these programs, and there are profits from these programs. So now it’s all mashed together. I do think the original motivation was fear, and I think that fear is why the public supports them to the extent that they do. They believe because they’ve been told that these programs keep them from dying.

The Boston bombing scene

The Boston bombing scene

– Does our fear match reality?

– Not even close. Boston bombing – two, three people died? I forget the number.

– I think they’re up to four now.

– Ok, the amazing thing about that is so few people died. And people are now afraid of finish lines at marathons? You know, the car ride to the marathon was the most dangerous part of that day. And that’s what we need to think about: in the US 40,000 people die each year in automobile deaths. That’s a 9/11 every month. The amount of the damage from terrorism is so small compared to the amount of attention and money it gets. We’re just not rational about the risk at all.

– I think I heard statistics that said more people are killed by cows in America than terrorism.

– And it wouldn’t surprise me. The thing about terrorism is that it actually kills surprisingly few people. It also depends on where you draw that line. Terrorism, unfortunately, is a word that is thrown around way too much. We tend to call them terrorists if they’re foreigners. We tend to call them terrorists if they don’t use a gun. Remember the shooters in the D.C. area in 2002? We did call them terrorists at the time, but nowadays we’re not so sure anymore. Or that rogue cop in California? We called him a terrorist; he caused a lot of damage. These two brothers in Boston – they seem kind of crazy? The definition of terrorism is very sloppy.

– It goes well beyond just those kinds of situations, because in those situations you’re at least talking about, in the most part, people who were threatening lives. Here in Eugene, when Occupy Eugene was a much bigger threat to security, we had some women go outside the city councilman’s house on Christmas. They took off their shirts and, saying anti-Christmas carols, because he was instrumental in getting our camp closed down. So you had topless women singing Christmas carols outside this guy’s house, and he labeled them terrorists. Since that he said he had to carry a gun from now on because of this.

80-year-old ‘terrorist’ at Oak Ridge

80-year-old ‘terrorist’ at Oak Ridge

– Terrorism is really being ratcheted down. I read last weekend there was a high school kid who made threats on Facebook. He’s being held for terrorism charges. And there’s this 80-year-old grandmother, one of the people who broke into – I think it’s Oak Ridge nuclear power plant, nuclear reactor station.

– Did they break in or did they just get within the perimeter?

– I’m not sure exactly what happened. Anyway, over the course of a year their charges have been increased to charges of terrorism. The reason this is a problem is not just: “We’re acting like idiots.” These laws we’re talking about kick in when it’s terrorism, and it’s, suddenly: singing Christmas carols is terrorism, sneaking into a nuclear power plant to post a sign is terrorism, then ordinary crimes get rolled up in this dragnet.

– Well, we have this prison industry, and we’re signing these deals that say: “We’ve got to give them 90%+ capacity.” And if we make everything terrorism, we make all the law breakers terrorists, we’re going to be fulfilling those contractual obligations to our prison builders.

– I don’t follow that issue; I think it’s probably an important thing to add into this mix, because you do want to look at the interests that are pushing all these things, but I don’t follow the private prison industry. I’m sure it’s related, because you have another corporate entity pushing for prison terms. It feels like a mistake in a democracy.

– Seems to me that the whole thing about laws to satisfy corporate needs strikes me as a real problem in our democracy.

– I would agree.

Read previous: Bruce Schneier on the NSA’s Surveillance 2: Eavesdropping on Everything

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