Tuesday, January 15, 2008

When checks and balances fail

Here's a disturbing piece highlighted by Slashdot yesterday. Basically says that our intelligence agencies would like the ability and authorization to more or less snoop on anything electronic anytime.

This (fortunately) appears to still be proposal rather than policy, but it's chilling. What I find particularly disturbing about this is the slippery-slope aspect. I am generally not a subscriber to slippery-slope theories (which usually involve conspiracy theories and border on the paranoid - just ask any gun owner about new firearm regulations), but I think there is a systemic reason why slippery-slope applies here.

The problem here is that there is no check on the degree to which the agencies charged with our safety may go, other than their own good judgment and budget. They are tasked with preventing another terrorist attack (among other jobs), and given the choice between doing anything and everything (whether constructive or merely cosmetic), or trying to be "reasonable" and thus failing to cover any potential security hole, they will go for former. After all, if a terrorist attacks and there was something - however minor or obscure - that they didn't do, they will have failed, but if they do more than is necessary or even reasonable and there is no attack, then they are perceived to have done their jobs.

Of course, they humans who are just responding to the incentives that we have placed before them, but the net result is that we are taking away basic freedoms and economic growth in exchange for "security" that is quite often strictly cosmetic. My favorite example here is the billions of dollars we are spending to have people remove their shoes at airports. This may well weed out the amateurs, but it is far too effort on the 99.9% of the people who pose no threat, and as such it is diverting money and attention from less visible but more productive approaches like better intelligence. And traveling to the US has become so inconvenient for foreigners that tourism is down dramatically - so we're hurting our own economy in the pursuit of the illusion of security.

Which brings me to the story mentioned above. I'm all for giving our government more ability to protect us, and I believe that better intelligence is key to that. But I have two conditions on this. First, per my rant above, it must actually be effective, which all too often it is not. But secondly, it must not destroy the very freedom that we strive to protect. As awful as terrorism is, I think it would be far better to have a free, open, and vibrant society that suffers the periodic tragedy of a terrorist attack, than to have a suspicious, burdened, invasive society even if that society did not have to suffer terrorism (though I doubt such a trade off truly exists).

Somehow we treat terrorism as "different" and have a zero-tolerance for it where we have a non-zero tolerance for other evils in our midst. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying we should tolerate terrorism, or in any way excusing it. But if we reacted to terrorism the way we react to other crimes, we'd have roadblocks and strip searches and x-rays of every car entering Manhattan because - shocking! - there are murders committed there. We don't "tolerate" murder, but we don't let the existence of it drive every aspect of our lives either - we take reasonable precautions and reasonable risks, and do what we can to drive the murder rate as low as we can.

But with terrorism, it seems there is no rationality about limits on what we will do to drive it to absolute zero, even though I believe (regrettably) that zero is an unattainable goal.

I wonder how long it will be before they decide that in the interest of aviation safety that they ban all people from travelling by air.

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