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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Filed Under: budgets, cost-benefit, cybersecurity, effectiveness, keep fear alive, nsa, politics, surveillance


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  • icon
    Josh in CharlotteNC (profile), 9 Apr 2015 @ 8:28am

    What about the money angle? There's a ton of government contractors getting contracts to supply equipment and services to the intelligence agencies. They're certainly lobbying to keep those budgets high and the gravy train flowing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    avideogameplayer, 9 Apr 2015 @ 9:43am

    PEDOPHILES! TERRORISTS! DRUG DEALERS!

    Sure, we haven't caught any of them, but sure sounds good, doesn't it?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Apr 2015 @ 9:46am

    Let's face it, most government programs don't work. Doesn't mean they aren't essential.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      DannyB (profile), 9 Apr 2015 @ 10:21am

      Re:

      Please don't assume that all government programs don't work just because a few (like 99%) don't work.

      Funneling large amounts of tax dollars to defense contractors, or oil or whoever is most well connected seems to be working.

      Using terrorists as an excuse to spy on the citizens seems to be working. (most people believe it)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 9 Apr 2015 @ 11:15am

      Re:

      most of the do work. It's just that the function is not what you presume.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Apr 2015 @ 9:59am

    Unconstitutional government waste employs voters. No politician is going to stand on the town square and declare that he is going to reduce the number of good-paying government jobs in his district, regardless of whether or not such jobs are even necessary, beneficial, or constitutional.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Spaceman Spiff (profile), 9 Apr 2015 @ 10:05am

    We are the government

    And we are here to help you - help you become frightened bunnies that will do whatever we tell you to! We will lie, scheme, rip you off (and blame it on "terrorists"), and then shut the door on your freedoms! Thanks, but I think Snowden is better off in Russia!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Apr 2015 @ 10:08am

    Maybe because its not about the terrorists?
    ffs americans when will you learn that politicians lie?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      DannyB (profile), 9 Apr 2015 @ 10:18am

      Re:

      But it is about the terrorists, in some sense.

      The spying on the citizens is not about terrorists. The terrorists are the justification, the rationalization, the excuse for spying on the citizens.

      So, yes, it's all about the terrorists! (they can say it with a straight face)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DannyB (profile), 9 Apr 2015 @ 10:15am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DannyB (profile), 9 Apr 2015 @ 10:24am

    It's too bad

    It's too bad that the people who want and get those big budgets are defense contractors instead of contractors who would do something useful, or at the very least, interesting.

    Such as curing cancer. Or building a moon base. Or a long list of other things.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Apr 2015 @ 10:27am

    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?"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 9 Apr 2015 @ 10:39am

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

      Sadly, if these don't work the dominant argument will still be they didn't do enough, not that they did too much.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward, 9 Apr 2015 @ 10:37am

    The real question

    Is it: SNAFU or FUBAR?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    jlaprise (profile), 9 Apr 2015 @ 10:49am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 9 Apr 2015 @ 11:14am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 11 Apr 2015 @ 6:37am

      Re: The wrong measure of effectiveness

      The effectiveness of surveillance is in increasing the coordination and communication costs of complex organizations.

      Unfortunately, even if that's true then the tendency will be towards more and more surveillance by that rationalization. And IMO it's unconstitutional and not worth the costs anyway.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Apr 2015 @ 11:18am

    Placebo

    It's been proven time and again that placebos can be very effective... so why shouldn't they be a standard tool for dealing with problems and threats?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Apr 2015 @ 11:19am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Gwiz (profile), 9 Apr 2015 @ 11:34am

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

      Too funny Blue.

      Actually the best change around here in the last year or so was when you stopped spamming the comment sections with your "holier-than-thou" rants and half-baked notions. We've had some real nice adult discussions since then.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Apr 2015 @ 11:23am

    they dont care that they dont work. the whole point is that they have put in place some things that allows them to keep tabs on others, even if the others dont do anything wrong. on top of that because they are able to do what they do, it gives them the feeling of control over everyone, which is the main point of it all!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Jim, 9 Apr 2015 @ 11:26am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Civil Claimant One, 9 Apr 2015 @ 11:50am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Civil Claimant One, 9 Apr 2015 @ 11:50am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    wsuschmitt (profile), 9 Apr 2015 @ 4:17pm

    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?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Padpaw (profile), 9 Apr 2015 @ 4:55pm

    But they do work. They enable those in charge to gather personal power and wealth for themselves. It was never about defending and protecting people.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Apr 2015 @ 5:27pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Apr 2015 @ 6:50pm

    Everything now aday is a "crisis".

    https://www.google.com/search?q=%22crisis%22&tbm=nws 62 million results.

    We are going to become emotionally blunt to "crisis".

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Apr 2015 @ 7:25pm

    Great, CISA aka CISPA 2.0 is back again -_-

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Apr 2015 @ 9:10pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    lew, 10 Apr 2015 @ 10:14am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Apr 2015 @ 5:07pm

    Its called faith

    For the same reason that the global warming crowd sticks to their faith despite the models being wrong and none of the predictions have come true. They just know they will come true one day though, just ask them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Apr 2015 @ 10:25am

    If they are against terrorism, why don't they arrest the criminals at the White House?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Tweak (profile), 13 Apr 2015 @ 7:26am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    John, 19 Apr 2015 @ 4:06pm

    Michael German?

    Michael German is more likely to be part of the security apparatus rather than an opponent of it. Kinda like a red herring: A diversion.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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