- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2006

A question that is hard to answer but important in today’s atmosphere of threat and conflict is this: What is the political cost of the technological gathering of intelligence?

Do we actually get enough of an increase in security from high-tech surveillance, against terrorists for example, to justify the potential damage to our democracy? Where are the limits of technology’s utility?

The means exist today for watching people to almost any extent. What good would it do?

Consider e-mail. It is of course technically possible to do all sorts of interception and screening of correspondence, to grab all mail going to particular addresses, to analyze content, and so on.

If an Internet service provider can recognize e-mail addressed to you and put it in your inbox, it could as easily put copies of it in a governmental inbox. How much would that improve security?

Not much, once the bad guys realized that the screening was occurring. They would find less-obvious ways of communicating. The same is true of interception of conversations by cell phone. If the bad guys didn’t know that it was happening, interception would be very useful. If they do know, they stop using cell phones. To them, surveillance is an inconvenience they adapt to. Honest citizens have to live with it permanently.

What would be the political costs to us of knowing, or suspecting, that every telephone conversation, every e-mail, was being read by governmental computers?

To begin with, the implications for a free press are grave. The relationship between government and press is sometimes adversarial, and necessarily so. If a source of news does not believe that he can talk to a reporter in confidence, reporters will have few sources. Most of us would feel uneasy knowing that we had no privacy online or on the phone. Surveillance by its very nature is repressive.

I know reporters today, perfectly sane, who say, “I’ll tell you when I see you.”

Does computerized scrutiny of lists of airline passengers keep terrorists out of the United States? It might if the terrorists didn’t know about it. But note that the drug industry has very little trouble in smuggling narcotics into the U.S.

Our shoreline is lengthy, our land borders porous. If we cannot prevent shipments of drugs from entering, if illegal aliens have little difficulty in crossing over, we cannot keep other determined people out.

To a skeptic, it can easily appear that citizens are giving up a great deal in exchange for little. The bad guys can adapt. The rest of us can’t unless we cease to use telephones and e-mail.

Wars have always been noted for encouraging loss of civil liberties. However, we have never lived in a time when the capacity to watch and compare, to track and analyze, has been so high. I encounter research into anti-terrorist technologies such as computerized examination of facial expressions to detect anger, or automatic analysis of voices in search of stress. Do we want this level of intrusiveness?

One may wonder how much is enough, and how much is too much. The nature of police powers is to increase in scope. What starts as sophisticated high-tech screening to detect things associated with terrorism will quickly morph into detection of any activity disapproved by government. If the airport screeners find that you have Viagra without a prescription, and arrest you, then the system is no longer anti-terror but a search for any offense.

Maybe we want this. Maybe we don’t. The danger is that we will get it without thinking, and find it hard to get rid of.

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