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The Burdens of Total Surveillance

Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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April 30, 2013

Last week’s Washington Post report that the CIA had requested that Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev be placed on a terrorist watch list raises an interesting point about total surveillance societies: in addition to all their negative implications for citizens, they actually bring some disadvantages for the authorities as well.

It’s not clear what information the CIA’s request was based upon, but reportedly it came from Russian authorities. It is also possible that Tsarnaev’s communications were flagged by US agencies such as the NSA. Either way, it seems as though there’s a real possibility that Tamerlan’s name came to the attention of the authorities through some dragnet-style surveillance technique.

If so, the conundrum for the authorities is this:

  1. When surveillance takes place on such a mass scale, it is impossible to pay close attention to everything. Even with automated electronic systems used for the eavesdropping, attempting to flag certain conversations or certain subjects as “suspicious” for human analysts, the volume of false positives is always going to dwarf real alarms. The world is just too full of too enormous a variety of conversations for such monitoring to be very precise. Think of all that the NSA or its Russian equivalent must pick up—from those who speak with unintentionally alarming metaphors or double meanings, to fiction authors discussing scenarios, to fans discussing movie or book plots, to harmless but slightly crazy people talking nonsense.
  2. Yet because of the dragnet nature of such surveillance, when one of the many, many false positives later turns into a true threat, and everybody starts looking at what happened, the government is highly likely to have some information on the person. And everyone is going to look at the fact that the government flagged that person and ask, “why didn’t you do more about that?” If you create a total-surveillance time machine, there will always be dots that can be connected in hindsight.

Although that dynamic is a downside of surveillance for the government, it is even worse for citizens. The danger is:

  • That the inevitable criticism and 20/20 hindsight will encourage ever greater surveillance, as the government vainly tries to sharpen its ability to separate true threats from the ocean of false positives by adding more data points to its equations.
  • That it will lead to ever-closer analysis of the data collected, again in the hopes of isolating true threats from false. That means more invasion of privacy as more intelligence (human or machine) is applied to the mass-scrutiny our communications.
  • That more innocent people will actually be placed under investigation, placed on watch lists, and/or have their lives placed under a microscope, all based on ever-fewer pieces of evidence, because the authorities expand the scope of what they treat as rising to the level where actions must be taken.

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