TCS Daily

Surveillance After London: Threats and Opportunities

By Arnold Kling - July 29, 2005 12:00 AM

"[London] is a pioneer of a trend toward video surveillance that is also sweeping the United States and provoking howls from civil libertarians whose internal clocks are set to make a reference to 1984 every 15 minutes or so. Given the choice, apparently, they would prefer not to have the video of the July 21 bombers, which is an indication of the suicidal otherworldliness of ACLU-style civil libertarianism."
-- Rich Lowry

As regular TCS readers know, I am an economist, with no claim to expertise on terrorism or security. I write on those subjects as an interested citizen. Based on those qualifications, I have some points that at first may seem counterintuitive, but which I believe make sense once you consider them.


1. "Homegrown" terrorism represents an opportunity as well as a threat to security.

2. Security cameras are an inferior surveillance technology.

3. Screening at potential target sites is an activity with high costs and low benefits.

4. The group most in need of intense, systematic scrutiny is the Department of Homeland Security.


Homegrown Terrorism is an Opportunity


Many people are upset by the fact that some of the London bombers were British citizens. If you thought that terrorism could be prevented by requiring ID cards, systematically searching for illegal aliens, and deporting everyone without proper papers, then this might make you think twice. But I was never in that camp to begin with.


On the other hand, if you believe that the best way to deal with terrorism is to infiltrate the terrorist organizations in order to obtain strategic and tactical intelligence, then the existence of homegrown terrorism is an opportunity. It is pretty hard to insinuate a CIA agent into a clan-based cell located in some remote -stan. But if terror cells include people who otherwise appear to be ordinary English-speaking citizens, then infiltration should be much easier.


Security Cameras are Inferior Technology


The ability to recreate a terrorist incident after the fact does not excite me. It would do nothing to deter a suicide terrorist. My guess is that it does little to deter even terrorists who want to live afterward -- they know they are playing a high-risk game.


As a prevention tool, security cameras are of questionable value. Do human beings have to monitor the cameras 24/7? At best, cameras can use face-recognition technology to issue some sort of alert, such as, "there's a chap on our watch list, about to board the subway." Is such information timely and actionable?


It seems to me that it would make more sense to invest in a network of sensors that detects explosive devices than a network of cameras. A sensor that tries to detect explosives is less of a threat to privacy than a video camera. And a positive reading from such a sensor would be a lot more actionable.


I am not saying that reliable technology exists to protect against bombs. However, my instinct is that sensors that are dedicated to that purpose will accomplish more than security cameras.


Screening at Target Sites is Wasteful


The cost of screening people at airports and subway stations is enormous. It is not simply the manpower involved in conducting the screening. The time that people waste while waiting to get on board is very significant.


The benefits of this screening are dubious. As everyone knows, there are plenty of other potential targets. Moreover, whenever I am stuck in a long line to get through airport security, I think of what an invitation this provides for a terrorist who wants to set off a bomb where it would cause heavy casualties.


I am pretty sure that any cost-benefit analysis of "equal-opportunity" screening would reach an adverse determination. Crude racial profiling would be just as bad, because terrorists would simply work around the profiles. The approach that makes the most sense to me is to search primarily on the basis of the risk characteristics of the individual, with proximity to a "potential target" only a secondary factor. Today, we do it the other way around, which is extremely cost-inefficient.


Of course, to focus on high-risk individuals, one needs to have some sort of database. That raises privacy issues, and it leads to my final point, which reiterates what I wrote in The Constitution of Surveillance.


Scrutinize DHS


"A March GAO report said that Secure Flight had not met nine out of the ten conditions mandated by Congress before TSA could spend money on implementing the program. (If you haven't read this report, it's pretty scathing.) The redress problem -- helping people who cannot fly because they share a name with a terrorist -- is not getting any better. And Secure Flight is behind schedule and over budget.


...It's also a rogue program that is operating in flagrant disregard for the law. It cant be killed completely; the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 mandates that TSA implement a program of passenger prescreening. And until we have Secure Flight, airlines will still be matching passenger names with terrorist watch lists under the CAPPS-I program. But it needs some serious public scrutiny."
-- Bruce Schneier


What is our most important security priority? What needs to be watched most closely? Our airports? Our rail systems? Our government buildings? Our borders? Radical Muslims?


I think that the top security priority should be to set up a system to monitor the Department of Homeland Security. I am not kidding.


We should have an agency whose sole function is to audit the conduct and performance of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that is tasked with preventing terrorism. This audit agency should be:


-- independent, with its own budget and a clear, specific mission, to examine DHS policies, procedures, and internal controls.


-- authorized to shut down programs that fail to enhance security or are misused or abused by DHS.


-- able to affect the performance evaluations and compensation of top management at DHS.


There are two risks that I worry about with DHS. One risk is that they will infringe on the dignity and rights of ordinary citizens. The other risk is that they will do an ineffective job at preventing terrorism. A strong watchdog would ease my concerns about both of those risks.


Arnold Kling is author of Learning Economics.


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