Are we learning to stop worrying and love the Surveillance State?

by Seth Finkelstein

That I lean forward on a desk of science
an astrologer dabbling in dragon prose
half-smart about wars   bombs   especially bombs
That I am unable to hate what is necessary to love
O Bomb I love you

-- from the poem "BOMB" by Gregory Corso (the origin of the catch-phrase "How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb")

Are strong civil-liberties merely an artifact of secure territory? This is one of the questions where we may be discovering an unpleasant answer.

In the United States, we like to think of ourselves as the most free country on the planet. But perhaps our freedom is not a virtuous trait of our national character, as we would like to believe. Rather, maybe it's simply an effect of having many decades where there was no military threat which would prompt any type of office of "homeland security".

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, there were immediate calls to restructure our society towards more surveillance and less security. That's not surprising, given the events. But some of the reactions had an odd flavor. It was as if many people suddenly discovered, for the first time, that there might be benefits to living in a police state and being constantly monitored - namely, more security (or at least the promise of more security). Benjamin Franklin's aphorism is much quoted: "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety". But, examined carefully, that's simply a moral judgment, about what is deserved. It doesn't give us much insight into the motivations which make it attractive to try to have such a trade.

Richard M. Smith, a well-known privacy consultant who has now switched to security work, said something very interesting about his decision. In a Wired article, he's quoted stating "... I started seeing that all the data collected as we go about our daily lives can be used for a very good purpose -- such as tracking down murderers." Yes, it can, among many other purposes. But it was one purpose, tracking, which seemed to be so dominant now.

One peculiar consequence of the September 11 attacks has been to validate certain discussions about the potential uses of extensive commercial databases. Consider what would be a common reaction before the attacks, if someone had suggested that supermarket purchase-tracking databases could be fodder for FBI investigations, and people could even find themselves under mass arrest in a social panic based on terrorist "food profiling". That would have been jeeringly dismissed as at best absurd satire, and at worst tinfoil-hat paranoia. Nowadays, not only isn't it satire, the problem is almost to prevent law-enforcement from thinking it's a great idea. Another hijacking or similar, and we may have (as gallows-humor) that "FBI" is said to stand for "Falafel Buyers Interned".

During the privacy debates of years ago, one view seemed to be that government data-gathering was threatening, while corporate data-gathering was benign. But data is data is data. It doesn't have any loyalty to who obtained it. Now, as a society, we've jumped straight from almost not thinking about such connections, to looking upon them as a potential security resource.

It feels almost unpatriotic to put forth the thought that a national tracking effort may have far more significant effects on our society than catching terrorists. Like loving the bomb, loving the surveillance state is not as simple as it may seem in the middle of a crisis.