Global surveillance is really a shorthand way of describing an array of initiatives which have been planned or implemented by governments since 9-11. These include: the NSA domestic spying program; passports and national ID cards that are being introduced in the United States and other countries, which have individuals biometrics (unique biological identifiers, like fingerprints) embedded into them, along with RFID chips, or radio frequency identification chips that can be read at a distance and used for tracking location; the U.S. CAPPS II and other passenger screening systems which collect biometric and commercial information on travelers, in order to assess them as a green, red, or amber risks; and the monster data mining program, Total Information Awareness and its progeny, which are meant to vacuum up vast amounts of personal information about populations and use computer algorithms to determine which of us might pose a security risk. There are a host of others.
Q: In the West, weve had the 9-11 attacks, the Madrid bombing, the London bombings and the recent plot which almost blew up 10 planes with hundreds of people on them -- as well as other planned attacks, like those in Canada, which have been averted. Are you saying authorities dont need better surveillance powers? Havent they been doing a good job recently with the new powers they have?
A: They dont need many of the new powers theyve been given and they dont need the kind of globalized, mass surveillance programs that I write about in the book. Success in the recent alleged plot in the U.K. appears to have been made through good old ordinary police work -- a tip from the Muslim community sparked the investigation. The breakthrough came from human intelligence, not artificial intelligence.
Ive mentioned the Bush Administrations NSA program youre probably aware of revelations that it has been trolling through millions of telephone calls and emails made by Americans without warrants, and that this program was ruled illegal by a U.S. court in August. The Administration contends that the program has saved lives. Yet, both U.S. and British counterterrorism officials have questioned these assertions, saying they had already learned of the alleged plots in question through other means. And, U. S. agents said the torrent of so-called tips they were getting from the NSA was diverting them from more productive counterterrorism work.
There is, in fact, no known example of any terrorists being caught by the new mass, globalized surveillance initiatives that I describe in the book. On the contrary, many innocent people are being caught up in the dragnet they create: as of December 2005, 30,000 people had been wrongly matched to the U.S. no fly list.
Sifting through an ocean of information with a net of bias and faulty logic, these initiatives yield a tidal wave of false leads and useless information. You know, there is a widely held belief that the government should have known about and prevented the 9-11 attacks. In fact, the traditional systems of law enforcement and security intelligence that were in place at the time, under-funded and lacking in critical human resources as they were, did yield information about the likelihood and imminence of the attacks. U.S. agencies knew the nature of the attacks and some of the key players were under investigation. Authorities had all kinds of clues, but they werent communicating well and they couldnt see the forest for the trees. How much better will they do if they have to continually sift through information on the lives of millions of people?
Q: Why are governments adopting these initiatives?
All of this is part of a larger and profound policy shift regarding security. Governments, with the United States in the lead, have embraced a new security model of preemption. It sounds fine, when you think of yourself and your family being protected from further terrorist attacks. But, in fact, it is a very dangerous model. It doesnt provide real security and it justifies almost anything. In the preemptive model, which holds sway today, everyone is continually evaluated as a potential suspect in order to eliminate risk to the furthest degree possible. No degree of risk is viewed as tolerable. Criminal and due process protections, which have been developed over centuries in democratic societies, are viewed as intolerable risks. Democratic institutions, constitutional guarantees, basic human rights and the rule of law itself are viewed as intolerably risky. Preemptive war is advocated as a solution to risk!
Q: How did this preemption model take hold?
After the attacks of 9-11, preemption became the mantra of the Bush Administration. Though statistics showed the number of people killed in the U.S. in car crashes each year outnumbered, many times over, those killed globally by terrorist attacks, people felt vulnerable. And the mantra of preemption reassured people that something was being done. But it served other agendas as well.
It led to the profound policy shift Ive described in law enforcement and security intelligence, allowing the Bush Administration to put into effect a wish list that these communities had been wanting for years. It served to keep the Administration in office and to consolidate power into the hands of the Executive. It was useful in outflanking opponents, manipulating the public, and putting pressure on dissenters. But it also served the foreign policy agenda of the neo-conservatives in the government, people like Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Lewis Libby, Richard Perle, and Elliot Abrams. Throughout the 90s, in a think tank called The Project for the New American Century, theyd been advocating preemptive war as a key component of an aggressive, unilateral foreign policy. After 9-11, and once the public had largely adapted to the idea of preemption as an essential strategy for security, it was a relatively easy thing for the Administration to take the anti-terrorism mantra of preemption and, like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, turn it into a new doctrine for the use of force: the doctrine of preemptive war.
Q: Is this a conspiracy theory?
A: No, its policy. In the case of the neo-conservatives and preemptive war, they had articulated their policy in the past, though they had never discussed it honestly with the American people during elections or after they came to power. Achieving their agenda came about through a lucky confluence of events and deft opportunism, giving rein to their immense hubris.
In the case of global surveillance and preemptive law enforcement, many of these initiatives have been floated before by governments. And governments, particularly the G8, are going along with the U.S. in these new initiatives for their own opportunistic reasons; reasons that go far beyond anti-terrorism. The preemptive model helps them introduce harsh immigration and refugee policies, to concentrate power into the hands of their executive branches of government, to beef up law enforcement powers, and to generally enhance the control they have over their populations. For repressive regimes, the preemption model provides a great opportunity to entrench their control, to bolster their security apparatuses, and to re-brand their dissidents or insurgents as terrorists who need to be put on an international list.
Q: In your book, you argue that this new kind of preemptive, or mass surveillance is bad for democracies and democratic values around the world.
A: Yes, its bad for democracy. In implementing these initiatives, governments are riding rough shod over our democratic institutions and rights:
suspending judicial oversight over law enforcement agents and public officials;
placing unprecedented power in the hands of the executive arm of government making end-runs around the oversight and debate normally provided by the legislative arm of government;
inviting unelected, unaccountable supra-national bodies to set policy for them;
abandoning well-established privacy protections for citizens;
ignoring constitutional guarantees;
rolling back important criminal law and due process protections (such as the presumption of innocence, habeas corpus) against the power of the state;
turning the private sector into the agent of the state;
systematically violating basic human rights;
and flouting the rule of law itself.
The Presidents illegal NSA program is a case study of what is happening.
Q: Why do you call these new surveillance initiatives illusions of security because they dont work?
A: Yes, as I describe in detail in the book, they dont give us security, they provide only illusions of security. But even if they did work, they would give us less than a little temporary safety. They do nothing to address what many would call the root causes of terrorism: oppression, repression and dispossession. They divert resources away from investments, which would make us safer. Good information about specific threats is usually obtained through human, not artificial intelligence, by agents who are capable of infiltrating the circles where these threats exist. These were the critical resources lacking before 9-11, that and translators. Even a year after 9-11, there were hundreds of hours of intercepted calls which had not been translated. This is one area where governments could be pouring the billions of dollars they are now spending on artificial intelligence. Or they might spend it on health care, disaster prevention, or other programs that address far greater threats to human security than terrorism.
But, as I said, these mass, globalized surveillance initiatives dont work. And in fact, they make us less secure. The democratic rights and institutions -- including the rule of law itself -- that these initiatives subvert, constitute our real personal and collective security. Moreover, the preemptive model of security exacerbates global insecurity. The harsh treatment meted out to detainees and civilian populations in this model foment only more insurgent opposition and terrorism and the new doctrine of preemptive war threatens to unleash an unimaginable era of violence and disorder.
Q: What lead you to write this book?
A: Look, Im a mother. I was in New York the day the twin towers came down. I had a 5 month old baby and a three year old and I was, and I am, as anxious as anyone to protect my family from harm. Ive seen the effects of terrorism in my own country with the Canadian Air India bombing and shared the grief of those families.
But you know, I think a growing number of people around the world and in the Unites States are coming to share the conviction that the road to security is not through the suspension of democratic safeguards, civil liberties, human rights and the rule of law.
I want my kids to grow up in and inherit the democracy I did. I dont think theyre going to be safer from terrorism or safer period in a police state. I dont think they are going to be safer in a world without the rule of law, without human rights.
Im a mother, but Im also a lawyer. And I think my profession has a lot to answer for in the current era. So, in a way, I had a duty to write the book.
This book began its life as a report I wrote for an international campaign launched by Statewatch in Europe, ACLU and American Quakers in the U.S., the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group in Canada and Focus on the Global South in Asia. Almost 200 organizations from around the world have already endorsed it.
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