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Posted by on Feb 19, 2016 in Featured, Government, Law, Politics, Terrorism | 4 comments

Is Increased Surveillance the Answer to Countering Terrorism? (Guest Voice)


Is Increased Surveillance the Answer to Countering Terrorism?
by Holly Whitman

How do you fight what you can’t see? That’s the question before us now, with entities like ISIS and Al Shabaab taking their recruitment and mobilization efforts onto the Internet. You know — the very same Internet you and I use on a daily basis and likely take for granted.

One potential answer to that question is this: You fight terrorism by surveilling the heck out of the threat. Unfortunately, that course of action would compromise the browsing histories, phone call metadata, and dozens of other personally identifying pieces of digital noise, not to mention the basic civil liberties of millions of law-abiding citizens in the process.

So how can you balance the two? Is it possible to reconcile our collective right to digital privacy with the unprecedented threat that modern terrorism represents? Can we fight terror without increasing the level of surveillance “normal” citizens are subjected to?

The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is not as complicated as you might expect.

Bulk Data Collection Is Not Useful

What we’re talking about today is the continuing fallout from Edwards Snowden’s 2013 revelations about the extent to which the Federal government has overstepped its legal (and moral) authority in the name of homeland security.

If you recall, Snowden awakened us all to the fact that the National Security Agency (NSA), citing the Patriot Act, had been collecting the phone records of law-abiding citizens, en masse, and in secret, for many years. This past June, the Obama Administration signed the USA Freedom Act into law, which curbed some, but not all, of the government’s data hoarding.

A more recent ruling by an appeals court formally found the NSA’s domestic spying program to be an illegal use of the government’s power.

For the last couple of years, Americans have been wrestling with the uncomfortable implications of what Snowden revealed. On the one hand, everybody wants to feel safe in their home country, particularly when news continues to roll in about escalating violence elsewhere, most recently from Paris. On the other hand, nobody wants to pay for that peace-of-mind by compromising their fundamental right to privacy.

Luckily, what precedent tells us about the efficacy of digital surveillance may take the decision out of our hands entirely. After all, we can have all of the hypothetical and ideological debates we want to about this issue, but only up until the facts have spoken. And they’ve definitely spoken.

In the two years or so since the public was first name aware of the NSA’s bulk data collection programs, those in the intelligence community have tried and failed to prove that the programs have thwarted acts of terrorism on US soil. There simply is no such evidence, despite the cries from Congress — mostly on the Republican side of the aisle — that this kind of data collection is legal, effective, or justified.

It’s none of those things. And if a politician tells you otherwise, he or she is lying to you.

Have We Learned Nothing?

Another, closely related issue that’s seen a precipitous rise in the collective unconscious is the question of resettling political refugees in the United States. It should be noted that the US has always functioned as a safe haven for people who have been displaced by war or political strife. But lately there’s a considerable amount of fear that these refugees — most of them from Syria — could serves as a Trojan horse for ISIS to get their operatives on the ground in the United States.

Again, there are two solutions to this quandary: spread fear and misinformation in the name of national security, or take a deep breath and look at recent history.

In the 14 years since the September 11th attacks, the United States has become home to nearly 800,000 refugees from a variety of troubled countries. This largely went under the radar until the very recent outburst of rage surrounding the Obama Administration’s commitment to resettle Syrian refugees on US soil.

In those 14 years, only three people out of the 800,000 were detained on suspicion of activities related to terrorism. None of them were even close to seeing their plan through, and two of them were actually on their way out of the country to make it happen.

Still, the Republican frontrunners are taking this opportunity to demonstrate just how clueless they are, by throwing their support behind a number of absurd surveillance-related efforts, including gems from Trump and Carson about actively monitoring mosques in the United States and creating a national database which would track and keep tabs on every Muslim in the country.

They once again prove that they’re unwilling to learn either from history or emerging facts. No, surveillance isn’t useful in combating terrorism. No, tracking every civilian in a given country is not a price worth paying to help you sleep at night.

Let’s recap: Mass surveillance is not useful, it’s not lawful, and it’s not American.

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Holly Whitman is a writer and political journalist originally from the UK but now based in Washington DC. You can find more of her writing at Only Slightly Biased or on Twitter at @hollykwhitman.