Monthly Archives: October 2013

Security Measures against Terrorism: Costs v. Benefits

Note: This article is also available in Portuguese, translated by Anders Bateva.

Plasterk in Tweede KamerA few days ago, the Dutch Home Office Minister Ronald Plasterk said in a debate in parliament that he’s apparently OK with the American intelligence community, the NSA among others, to spy on the Netherlands. His reasoning is flawed from the get-go, and went somewhat like this (paraphrased): “I don’t want to say that Dutch citizens may never be spied upon. Because that Dutch citizen can also be a stone-cold terrorist. And it’s good if that terrorist can be found.” Here’s the full quote (in Dutch):

“Ik wil dan ook wel oppassen om in het woordgebruik bijvoorbeeld te zeggen: ja maar, er mag nooit naar Nederlandse burgers worden gekeken. Want die Nederlandse burger kan natuurlijk een keiharde terrorist zijn, en dan zijn we toch blij dat die op een gegeven moment ergens op de rader verschijnt, en dat moet natuurlijk volgens de wetten gebeuren, maar dat die op de radar verschijnt, en dat er vervolgens actie kan worden ondernomen.”

Plasterk later denied saying that, but he did in fact say this during the debate. More evidence can be found here.

Is No Price Too High For Security?

Benjamin Franklin once said something like “They who give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” This quote has been used a lot, but it is applicable here. The question we need to answer is the following: When do security measures stop benefiting the greater good, and infringe on our privacy and liberty, which are values that used to define our very societies? When does the price we have to pay for that little extra security becomes too great? Combating terrorism certainly seems like a very noble goal, and while I do agree that there are some people out there who aim to change our societal structures through violent methods (although one has to note that one man’s terrorist is the other man’s freedom fighter; the definition of the term is a bit in the eye of the beholder), there does come a point where the price we have to pay for a little increase in security becomes too great, compared to the potential benefits.

Terrorism is Really Rare

Chances Terrorist Attack One thing we have to understand is that acts of terrorism on the scale of 9/11 or the London public transport bombings on 7/7, awful as they may be, are still very rare indeed. Extremely rare in fact. Even President Obama has said so, although he does have an interesting choice of words. The chance that you’re involved in a traffic accident tomorrow are several orders of magnitude greater than the chance that the next aircraft you are in will end up in a building instead of on the runway. This is also valid for other acts of terrorism, not just the ones involving aircraft. And even the TSA agrees now that terrorists are not plotting against aviation. So why do we still have to cope with all the draconian security measures then, if it’s clear that it didn’t help one bit? You see the same thing happening with CCTV cameras. Governments and corporations put these things up everywhere, but there isn’t the tiniest shred of evidence that these cameras actually help prevent crimes. But still the TSA and their European counterparts continue to tell people to leave their water bottles and baby food and butter knifes at the checkpoint. Bruce Schneier put a lot of thought into this problem, and he said that we currently try to protect against specific movie-like terrorist plots, instead of doing a thorough risk analysis and protect ourselves with more generic measures that may actually work against multiple types of plots. Terrorists bring down aircraft, so we increase security at airports; terrorists used box cutters, so we ban box cutters; someone brought a bomb on board hidden in his shoe, so we’re telling people to take their shoes off. These are all very specific actions taken against these types of movie-like plots. The security measures taken here are way too specific to work against anything other than the movie plot attack. As soon as terrorists modify their plan just one tiny bit, the entire strategy to combat them becomes ineffective. Humans are unfortunately excruciatingly bad at evaluating risks, and if you give them a very specific, movie-like terrorist plot, they will rate the risk from that much higher than it is in reality, because of the specificity of the plot. We humans have evolutionary been conditioned to consider specific threats a greater risk than a more general threat. On Wired, Schneier states:

If you’re a higher-order primate living in the jungle and you’re attacked by a lion, it makes sense that you develop a lifelong fear of lions, or at least fear lions more than another animal you haven’t personally been attacked by.

We are conditioned to think: it happened once, so it’s likely that it’ll happen again. And you see politicians using that knowledge to their advantage. It is insightful to consider that most measures we’ve currently taken against terrorism, would never even be considered had the events of 9/11 not happened.

Moving On..

With regard to the comments made by Mr. Plasterk: I think a lot of politicians still think that the United States is one of the ‘good guys’, when there’s more and more evidence coming out that politically speaking, it is not our ally, and certainly not our friend. They serve their own self-interests, just like any other nation on earth, and it’s important to never forget that. I even heard some politicians say that we should demand that Dutch citizens shall be treated the same as Americans under US law. It is laughable to think that the Americans across the pond will say: “Oh no! We angered the Dutch! Quickly change our laws to treat them the same as we treat Americans before they start re-colonizing New York!” At most, what these politicians will get is a nice letter from the US Embassy in which they solemnly promise that it will never happen again, meanwhile not changing their laws or practices in the US. And the NSA happily continues to trample upon their NATO allies’ rights. And our politicians are apparently very happy to accept that. We have to reconsider our position and alliances after the numerous disclosures of classified documents by whistle-blower Edward Snowden. For what good is a friend who spies on you behind your back? President Roussef of Brazil has taken decisive action by severing ties with the United States and even building new fibre optic cable connections that circumvent United States territory. Where is the outrage in Dutch society? Here, AMS-IX (the Amsterdam Internet Exchange, the second-largest Internet exchange in the world), sets up shop in the US, making it subject to the PATRIOT Act. Have these people been living under a rock these past months? Or are there other, commercial interests at play here? We need to start demanding answers while at the same time strengthening our own privacy protections. Privacy is a human right, nothing more, nothing less. We need to start using it, or risk losing it.