Authorities are currently working hard to get more surveillance powers in the wake of the attacks in Paris. This response is entirely predictable, and it seems to rest on the premise that if we had access to more data, these attacks could be prevented. But this obviously begs the question–is this premise even true? Would greater surveillance powers provide greater security? There are many compelling reasons to oppose increased surveillance based on constitutional or civil liberties considerations, but is it possible to oppose it on purely pragmatic grounds as well?
Writing at The Intercept, Ryan Gallagher has an important story out today that helps inform this debate. His story looks at ten of the last major terrorist attacks against Western targets. For each attack, he summarizes the relevant details about the perpetrators and also discusses what the authorities knew about these suspects in advance of the attacks. His conclusion is striking. In every case considered, authorities were aware of the extremist tendencies of at least one of the perpetrators in each attack:
How they came to know these details varies in each case. But the point is that they knew of the potential suspects, and failed to properly investigate. And there’s no indication that the failure stemmed from a lack of access or encryption or stringent civil liberties rulings. Rather, in most cases it appears the authorities just didn’t have the adequate resources to properly investigate the leads. Ultimately, the problem wasn’t a lack of data, it was a lack of focus.
This is important context as the surveillance debate begins anew. One of the goals of increased surveillance is that the government would be better able to identify real threats. But if you’re conducting surveillance against everyone and running the data through an algorithm to generate new leads–you’re certain to get at least a few false positives, leads that are really just a waste of time. The program is only as good as the programmers can make it, and it’s probably going to err on the side of caution. On the other hand, if you have someone explicitly tell police that they think their roommate is going to do something crazy, as allegedly happened for one of the Paris attackers, well, it’s probably safe to assume that’s worth following up on. In other words, to the extent that the surveillance powers generate even more leads, they could further dilute law enforcement’s efforts to pursue the most dangerous threats. And in this way, they may ultimately prove counterproductive, even on purely pragmatic grounds.
Advocates of the surveillance state are fond of saying that they are looking for a needle in the haystack. So in order to find the needle, they need to collect the whole haystack. What Gallagher’s research suggests, however, is that they already know where a lot of those needles are and should focus on picking those up first.