Why Don't Surveillance State Defenders Seem To Care That The Programs They Love Don't Work?

from the big-questions dept

As the pressure is finally on over renewing Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act (and the mass surveillance programs enabled by the law), there are some interesting questions being raised: such as why doesn’t the intelligence community seem to care about whether or not its programs work. That link takes you to a great article by former FBI agent (and now big time defender of civil liberties) Michael German, investigating the issue in the context of cybersecurity legislation. Here’s just a snippet in which he notes that basically everyone agrees that these programs won’t help at all, and yet some are still pushing for them:

There is a strong argument for ending these programs on the basis of their high cost and lack of effectiveness alone. But they actually do damage to our society. TSA agents participating in the behavioral detection program have claimed the program promotes racial profiling, and at least one inspector general report confirmed it. Victims unfairly caught up in the broader suspicious activity reporting programs have sued over the violations of their privacy. The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board concluded the telephone metadata program violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and raised serious constitutional concerns.

The Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act passed by Senate Intelligence Committee last week is yet another example of this phenomenon. Experts agree that the bill would do little, if anything, to reduce the large data breaches we?ve seen in recent years, which have been caused by bad cyber security practices rather than a lack of information about threats. If passed by the full Congress, it would further weaken electronic privacy laws and ultimately put our data at greater risk. The bill would add another layer of government surveillance on a U.S. tech industry that is already facing financial losses estimated at $180 billion as a result of the exposure of NSA?s aggressive collection programs.

He also details some of the over-inflated claims of other surveillance programs in the past — all of which were later shown to be false. But, the article doesn’t really attempt to answer the question — just raise it. In the past, we’ve noticed that the entire concept of a cost-benefit analysis seems antithetical to the way the surveillance state does business. But why is that?

There are a few theories. The most obvious one is the one put forth by the ACLU’s Kade Crockford a few months ago, highlighting a statement by former FBI assistant director Thomas Fuentes in a documentary about the FBI’s fake plots, The Newburgh Sting, in which he basically admits that keeping the public scared is how you get your budgets approved:

If you?re submitting budget proposals for a law enforcement agency, for an intelligence agency, you?re not going to submit the proposal that ?We won the war on terror and everything?s great,? cuz the first thing that?s gonna happen is your budget?s gonna be cut in half. You know, it?s my opposite of Jesse Jackson?s ?Keep Hope Alive??it?s ?Keep Fear Alive.? Keep it alive.

In other words, it’s the bureaucratic momentum that leads the surveillance state to just keep pushing the “fear” story, and never wants anyone to look at whether or not that story is true or if the cost related to it makes sense. That’s certainly supported by the fact that many of the earliest hypers of “cybersecurity” were those who stood to profit handsomely from it (and have done so).

In our recent podcast with Barry Eisler (himself a former CIA agent), he suggested a similar, but slightly different rationale, pointing to the “streetlight effect” based on the old joke of a drunk man searching for his lost keys under a streetlight, while admitting they were actually lost somewhere else. When questioned about this, he notes that he’s searching under the light because “that’s where the light is.” In other words, the surveillance state collects all this useless data because they can — and the costs associated with it (not just the direct costs, but all the damage done to US companies, trust in government and more…) don’t really matter.

There’s probably a combination of both of those factors at work here, but I’ll toss another one on the list which may be at work as well: the CYA theory. That is, most of the people in the surveillance state know pretty damn well that these programs are useless. But they don’t want to be the one left holding the bag when the music stops on the next big attack, and the press and politicians are pointing to them and asking why they didn’t do “X” to prevent whatever horrible thing just happened. So those officials need to “cover their ass” in being able to claim that they did everything possible — and that always means more surveillance, because they don’t want to be told that they could have gotten some information but didn’t (even if having more information obscures finding the important information.)

In other words, many of those involved are doing a cost-benefit analysis, not for the safety of the country or national security but for their own reputations. And that’s how bad policy gets made. They don’t do the right thing because no one wants to stand up there after there’s some sort of attack or problem, and say “well, we didn’t know those bad people were doing this because we didn’t want to violate everyone’s rights.” That just doesn’t play well, unfortunately.

That’s why the point that Bruce Schneier has been trying to make for years is so important: we need to bring society back to a place where people accept that there’s some risk involved in everything. That’s the nature of being alive. If we can rationally come to terms with that fact, then people don’t need to freak out so much. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like that societal shift is going to happen any time soon.

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Comments on “Why Don't Surveillance State Defenders Seem To Care That The Programs They Love Don't Work?”

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38 Comments
DannyB (profile) says:

What do you mean they Don't Work ?

The surveillance programs DO work.

Oh, I see. You meant for a different and publicly stated purpose. Okay, I agree. For those purposes the programs don’t work.

Now think about the purposes, not publicly stated, for which those surveillance programs DO work, and are effective. Spying on the citizens has been used by numerous countries in the 20th century, and the spying did work for its intended purpose.

Anonymous Coward says:

Challenge the "Why didn't you X?" defense by changing its terms

“This attack happened because you were not ready. You were not ready because you squandered resources on programs you knew didn’t work. Why didn’t you focus the agency on programs that serve its chartered purposes, rather than squandering all these resources on programs that you knew didn’t work?”

jlaprise (profile) says:

The wrong measure of effectiveness

pervasive surveillance advocates and critics often argue over actual instances of terrorism stopped in terms of cases. This is unhelpful. The effectiveness of surveillance is in increasing the coordination and communication costs of complex organizations. It is no coincidence that we haven’t seen a 9/11 style plot. Coordination the actions of multiple groups, international travel, money transfers, and timing require a lot of communication. Knowledge that you are potentially under such surveillance means that terrorists either devote more resources to security, or choose lesser attacks. This is a different kind of cost benefit analysis but one with which the DoD is well acquainted.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: The wrong measure of effectiveness

The effectiveness of surveillance is in…

The effectiveness of surveillance is in increasing the public perception of the post-constitutional government order.

Somewhat surprisingly, it’s younger people who tend to make unpleasant comparisons with the former East German state. Most older folks seem to prefer to forget the past. I would not have expected that phenomenon —thus the program isn’t a total loss —we do learn something new in social science.

Anonymous Coward says:

Hmm. Doing what they know, unable to think of more...

Similarly, Techdirt keeps running standard click-bait like this that draws the same old (and rapidly aging) pirates and pseudo-libertarians who can’t and won’t accurately or honestly analyze that what they’re doing is NOT working.

Complaining will never work even if accurate: you need some sort of plan.

Let’s have Masnick’s expert suggestions. Or will that take another decade?

The only noticeable change in the last year is that Masnick removed that ancient “Technorati Top 100” claim on the About page.

Jim says:

Or perhaps:

How about the suppression of speech among the citizenry during the toughest times this country has faced since the First Great Depression & the subsequent World War?

How about keeping the thumb of surveillance on the citizenry in order to keep the failed neoliberal, libertarian elite in charge, after that have put this country on its knees?

Think Occam’s Razor…it’s not that complicated.

Civil Claimant One says:

Fraud Phenomenon Survaillance State

Overhyped paranoia: that’s the real program that’s going on, Who is spying for profit and who is spying to secure Data ??? The whole network was supposed to be made more secure (with Good Sauceware) instead of allowing it to over run our corporate infrastructure. A team of Gossip columnists is really in control of the whole internet, spreading boring news feeds takes priority over stopping data theft.

Civil Claimant One says:

Fraud Phenomenon Survaillance State

Overhyped paranoia: that’s the real program that’s going on, Who is spying for profit and who is spying to secure Data ??? The whole network was supposed to be made more secure (with Good Sauceware) instead of allowing it to over run our corporate infrastructure. A team of Gossip columnists is really in control of the whole internet, spreading boring news feeds takes priority over stopping data theft.

wsuschmitt (profile) says:

There seems to be a pattern here:

1. Claim that there are ‘things’ out there that will kill you. Make mountains out of molehills…

2. Offer options to keep you from getting killed (that will cost you a lot). Make sure that you point out that other options won’t work and why they won’t work… and then repackage and sell it yourself!

3. Profit!

… is this article about Federal Gov’t Surveillance Programs, or Food Babe?

Anonymous Coward says:

Down Under the Fear Factor has been ramped up to 11 ever since the latest far right government came to power in 2013. Now with the metadata collection of all our electronic communications we are supposed to feel safe from all of those damn terrorists, pedos & any other group the RWNJ’s consider to be the latest moral panic on which they should act on our behalf.
For the 6 years between 2007 & 2013 when the centralist Labor Party was in power we didn’t have any of this fear factor of the lastest bogey man, they just got down to doing what they were paid to do, run the country. Now we have clowns telling us the sky will fall down if we don’t accept their divisive fear mongering of anyone not like them, white, Christian & rich.

Anonymous Coward says:

I believe it was Franklin D. Roosevelt who said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.

Yoda also stated, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering”.

That’s what America’s irrational ‘terrorist’ fears are leading us towards, suffering. We will suffer because we surrendered our freedoms, way of life, and let the terrorist win by destroying this great nation ourselves with our very own hands. Pathetic!

Remember, it all started with fear.

lew says:

Blackmail is the reason, of course

NSA has a searchable database of the world’s blackmail information. If it wants to affect a school board election in Podunk, Ohio, it can easily find who to call and what topics to discuss.

Every LEF agency uses its information that way, power.

So ‘keep the public scared’ is a means to their power.

We know the blackmail works : Do notice that NSA, etc. surveillance has not been diminished in the slightest.

Tweak (profile) says:

Here, we seem to have run into one of the basic problems with the discussion around surveillance programs and agencies since Snowden (most notably) and his predecessors have brought these issues to the public’s eyes. We know that these agencies and their supporters lie; they lie about everything. So, that being a solid truth, why do we continue to believe the charade that these surveillance programs are about terrorism? Heck, here at Techdirt there have been multiple articles about how none of the programs have created any meaningful results outside of one guy from San Diego sending a few grand overseas. It could not be more obvious that they are about corporate espionage and exerting control over the populace.

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