Not a week after homemade bombs tore through a crowd at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15 leaving three dead and dozens wounded, law enforcement identified Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as the assailants. A few days later, Tamerlan lay dead and Dzhokhar wounded and handcuffed to a hospital bed after being hunted down by a virtual army of police and federal agents who had turned Boston into a city under control.
During the hunt for the Tsarnaevs and in the weeks thereafter, there has been a steady drumbeat of politicians, police officials and “experts” clamoring for more technology, better technology as the silver bullet to identify and track future “lone wolf” terrorists before they act. Facial recognition software, massive surveillance camera networks, databases on suspect individuals and “intelligent video” technology capable of recognizing “abnormal” behavior have all been promoted as necessary measures to prevent the next mass bombing.
A New York Times/CBS poll conducted last month found a majority of those surveyed were in favor of installing more public surveillance cameras and supported curtailed civil liberties in exchange for public safety. New York City has the largest networks of linked surveillance cameras in the United States, a fact which Mayor Michael Bloomberg frequently touts. After the Boston bombings, Bloomberg told reporters “You’ll never know where all our cameras are.” On the other side of the country, the San Francisco Police Department is seeking to increase the number of cameras it has along the city’s downtown thoroughfares and monitor them live. That possibility may seem mundane, but the measure was not implemented after a rash of criticism in the civil libertarian hotbed of the Bay Area. Backpacks will now be banned at the annual Bay to Breakers run.
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However, there is scant evidence that mass surveillance has any deterrent effect on determined terrorists – and the actual facts of the Tsarnaev case actually run contrary to the narrative that emphasizes the need for new, more intrusive surveillance technology. The Tsarnaevs were identified as the bombers through a combination of photographs, video and, critically, eyewitness accounts. Their faces were not identifiable through facial recognition software because the brothers were not in any databases of arrestees. Human interaction, rather than technology, led to their arrests. Furthermore, two government databases of potential terrorists failed to flag Tamerlin Tsarnaev’s trip to Russia while ignoring the Russian government’s warning about his potential radicalization.There are concerns even within the law enforcement community that the Monday-morning quarterbacking of the Boston attacks will result in a rush towards expanded surveillance of public places without consideration for the legal or societal implications. Law enforcement and intelligence agency veterans have warned that a rush to build out surveillance infrastructure could turn the United States into an Orwellian “surveillance state” to rival China. Philip Mudd, a former FBI intelligence adviser, cautioned against the consequences of intensive scrutiny of individuals suspected of terrorism at a conference in Washington, DC last month.
“The question is: what kind of screening do you want in place to get an American into that lens? Before you want to swing that pendulum too far: be careful,” Mudd told the Guardian. “If you want to guarantee we find those folks – and by the way, the FBI wouldn’t, anyway – there is only so much you can do in an open society to penetrate a closed circle.”
Bruce Schneier, a nationally renowned security expert, has long been critical of quick-fix security policies implemented without evidence of their effectiveness. “We do like our technology, and we commonly see it as the solution to our problems,” Schneier said in an interview with Truthout. “The thing is, it often is. Technology is always getting better. It can always do more things. It can always do different things.”
However, Schneier argues that when it comes to technological improvements, security is one field where the newest and most advanced tool will not always accomplish the goal of guarding against harm. “Security isn’t just about increasing technology,” Schneier said. “It’s about defending against an intelligent adversary who has his own technology. This makes the progression very different. But that’s not obvious to the layman who just knows that technology makes things better.”Schneier unequivocally stated that large networks of surveillance cameras are not effective deterrents to either crime or terrorism, pointing to several studies of their impact in the United States and the United Kingdom, where closed-circuit television (or CCTV) has a minimal deterrent effect and helped solve relatively few crimes.
Databases of suspected terrorists and “intelligent video” software designed to recognize “suspicious behavior” are also susceptible to human error and flawed algorithms, said Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who works on privacy matters. “There’s an assumption that computers and software can do no wrong,” Lynch told Truthout. “If no corrections are built in, it could lead to people being targeted incorrectly.”Over the past decade, military-industrial giants such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman have invested heavily in surveillance systems and software as Pentagon spending migrates away from traditional weapons systems such as fighter jets and warships.
While the drive for profit from these companies is one factor behind the expansion of the American surveillance apparatus, there are also more subtle drivers in our recourse to technology for a solution to seemingly intractable problems of terrorism and crime. Jay Stanley, a senior ACLU analyst who specializes in technology and privacy, believes the recourse to technology partially stems from deeper psychological urges to control seemingly chaotic conditions. “Technology allows for greater control of people,” Stanley told Truthout. “Surveillance is a form of control – just the act of being watched forces people to change their activities.” Terrorist attacks, Stanley said, are extremely difficult to predict or forecast, and governments understandably respond to this lack of command with methods that allow them to “say they’re doing something” while also increasing their influence.
And while ordinary citizens may not understand the immediate ramifications of implementing policies like blanket CCTV networks and warrantless electronic surveillance, when it impacts their private lives, the consequences become immediate. “When the rubber hits the road and people feel the loss of privacy in their personal lives, they tend to get angry,” Stanley said. If the momentum for increased domestic surveillance gathers enough steam, the United States could turn into a dystopian society that will make the cold war-era East Germany depicted in the 2006 film The Lives of Others seem mundane by comparison.
CCTV paired with intelligent video software designed to pinpoint “suspicious behavior” will encourage law enforcement to make preemptive arrests and detentions, a practice which the New York City Police Department is already accused of through racial profiling of young black and Latino men. Electronic communications will be an open book to law enforcement as Fourth Amendment protections against unwarranted searches and seizures are gutted in the name of public safety exceptions.
In truth, many of these changes are already present. The National Security Agency has the capability to eavesdrop on domestic communications, which rose to the level of scandal during George W. Bush’s administration but has faded from the headlines since the Democrats took back the White House in 2008. The FBI is pushing to require electronic communications companies to build in wiretapping capabilities to their networks or face serious financial penalties. Military-grade software that stores the biometric information of detained individuals is already in use by the NYPD, and programs that predict battlefield casualties are being re-engineered by private companies for “crime prediction” purposes.
We are at an inflection point as a country, and the Boston attacks may just be the catalyst that transforms the United States into George Orwell’s Oceania.