Blowing a whistle on the ‘big data’ debate, which forgets 9/11

Another Sep. 11, 2001, could have far greater costs to civil liberties than the US government’s data mining, leading even to the end of open society as we know it

By Thomas Friedman  /  NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

Sun, Jun 16, 2013 - Page 9

I am glad I live in a country with people who are vigilant in defending civil liberties. However, as I listen to the debate about the disclosure of two US government programs designed to track suspected telephone and e-mail contacts of terrorists, I do wonder if some of those who unequivocally defend this disclosure are behaving as if Sept. 11, 2011, never happened — that the only thing we have to fear is government intrusion in our lives, not the intrusion of those who gather in secret cells in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan and plot how to topple our tallest buildings or bring down US airliners with bombs planted inside underwear, tennis shoes or computer printers.

Yes, I worry about potential government abuse of privacy from a program designed to prevent another Sept. 11 — abuse that, so far, does not appear to have happened — but I worry even more about another Sept. 11. That is, I worry about something that has already happened once — that was staggeringly costly — and that terrorists aspire to repeat.

I worry about that even more, not because I do not care about civil liberties, but because what I cherish most about the US is our open society, and I believe that if there is one more Sept. 11 — or worse, an attack involving nuclear material — it could lead to the end of the open society as we know it.

If there were another Sept. 11, I fear that 99 percent of Americans would tell their members of Congress: “Do whatever you need to do to, privacy be damned, just make sure this does not happen again.”

That is what I fear most.

That is why I will reluctantly, very reluctantly, trade off the government using data mining to look for suspicious patterns in telephone numbers called and e-mail addresses — and then have to go to a judge to get a warrant to actually look at the content under guidelines set by Congress — to prevent a day where, out of fear, we give government a license to look at anyone, any e-mail, any telephone call, anywhere, any time.

So I do not believe that Edward Snowden, the leaker of all this secret material, is some heroic whistle-blower. No, I believe Snowden is someone who needed a whistle-blower. He needed someone to challenge him with the argument that we do not live in a world any longer where our government can protect its citizens from real, not imagined, threats without using big data — where we still have an edge — under constant judicial review. It is not ideal. However, if one more Sept. 11-scale attack gets through, the cost to civil liberties will be so much greater.

A hat tip to blogger Andrew Sullivan for linking to an essay by David Simon, the creator of HBO’s The Wire. For me, it cuts right to the core of the issue.

“You would think that the government was listening in to the secrets of 200 million Americans from the reaction and the hyperbole being tossed about,” Simon wrote. “And you would think that rather than a legal court order, which is an inevitable consequence of legislation that we drafted and passed, something illegal had been discovered to the government’s shame. Nope... The only thing new here, from a legal standpoint, is the scale on which the FBI and NSA [National Security Agency] are apparently attempting to cull anti-terrorism leads from that data... I know it’s big and scary that the government wants a database of all phone calls. And it’s scary that they’re paying attention to the Internet. And it’s scary that your cellphones have GPS installed... The question is not should the resulting data exist. It does... The question is more fundamental: Is government accessing the data for the legitimate public safety needs of the society, or are they accessing it in ways that abuse individual liberties and violate personal privacy — and in a manner that is unsupervised. And to that, the Guardian and those who are wailing jeremiads about this pretend-discovery of US big data collection are noticeably silent. We don’t know of any actual abuse.”

We do need to be constantly on guard for abuses.

However, the fact is, Simon added, that for at least the last two presidencies, “this kind of data collection has been a baseline logic of an American anti-terrorism effort that is effectively asked to find the needles before they are planted into haystacks, to prevent even such modest, grass-rooted conspiracies as the Boston Marathon bombing before they occur.”

To be sure, secret programs, like the virtually unregulated drone attacks, can lead to real excesses that have to be checked, but here is what is also real, Simon concluded: “Those planes really did hit those buildings. And that bomb did indeed blow up at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. And we really are in a continuing, low-intensity, high-risk conflict with a diffuse, committed and ideologically motivated enemy. And, for a moment, just imagine how much bloviating would be wafting across our political spectrum if, in the wake of an incident of domestic terrorism, a US president and his administration had failed to take full advantage of the existing telephonic data to do what is possible to find those needles in the haystacks.”

And, I would add, not just bloviating. Imagine how many real restrictions to our beautiful open society we would tolerate if there were another attack on the scale of Sept. 11. Pardon me if I blow that whistle.