Since the tragedy in Boston three weeks ago, there has been much talk in the media and political circles about technology that helped capture the suspects, the role of surveillance, and the critical issue of how privacy should be handled in the digital age. Yet the public facts known so far do not call for new governmental surveillance powers or tools. Instead, the investigation supports the conclusion that the government's current actions did not cross the Fourth Amendment line, and complying would not harm future terrorism investigations.
First, the familiar attempt to throw privacy out the window: The Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg led the way last week, saying that, despite privacy concerns, "our laws and our interpretation of the Constitution, I think, have to change." NYPD chief Ray Kelly echoed Bloomberg, saying, "I think the privacy issue has really been taken off the table," in reference to surveillance after the bombings in Boston.
Bloomberg said terrorists "want to take away our freedoms," yet his solution seems to be the government should take our freedoms away first. This is folly, and the very reduction of privacy and freedom is what could give victory to terrorism.
In an excellent and poignant column immediately after the bombing, security expert Bruce Schneier wrote in The Atlantic about the reaction we all should have: "When we react from fear, when we change our laws and policies to make our country less open, the terrorists succeed, even if their attacks fail." He continued: "there's one thing we can do to render terrorism ineffective: Refuse to be terrorized."
To Schneier's point, the risk of terrorism is on the decline and has been since the 1970s, according to the Global Terrorism Database. And a report by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) showed the risk of Americans being killed in terrorism attacks that occur worldwide is exceedingly low. Of the 13,288 people killed by terrorist attacks in 2011, 17 were private U.S. citizens-.001 percent. In fact, you are far more likely to be struck by lightning than be killed by a terrorist.
These calls for less privacy also tend to ignore the fact that we've already given away a tremendous amount of our privacy since 9/11, despite the relatively low risk of terrorism in comparison to all sorts of other crime and causes of death, and have little additional safety to show for it. The PATRIOT Act, the FISA Amendments Act, the NSA's warrantless wiretapping, National Security Letters, or others were all implemented with the promise that giving up liberty would increase our safety. The NYPD now has a "Domain Awareness System," which "allows officers to tap into live video camera feeds, 911 calls, mapped crime statistics, and license plate readers" all at once-with little oversight. And those are just a few of the programs we know about.
While most of these programs are still tremendously secret, the information we do have indicates that they have been abused many times. The NYPD, for instance, has been widely criticized for its post-9/11 pervasive surveillance. Read the Associated Press' Pulitzer Prize winning series for more.
Let's focus on just two areas that the Boston bombing brought to the forefront.
Government Surveillance Cameras
First, do the facts support a call for increased government surveillance cameras? No, they do not.
There's certainly been an epidemic of media support for cameras in the aftermath of the Boston attack. We suspect that companies selling cameras are already lining up outside the doors of state and municipal officials hoping to snare some tax dollars from panicky officials.
But as many others have pointed out, it is important to remember, despite the fact that the bombers were surrounded by dozens of cameras, the cameras did not prevent the bombing. This is consistent with what has occurred in other such attacks, including the attacks in the subway in camera-happy London.
Cameras were quite helpful, along with other evidence including an eye-witnesses, in identifying the suspects after the fact. But importantly, the footage that identified the suspects didn't come from government cameras - it came from private ones, volunteered from businesses and individuals, and provided more than enough to identify two people in days.