Bruce Schneier, author and security expert, spoke with EconTalk host Dr. Russ Roberts recently about power, the internet, and anti-terrorism strategies. These notes are from the transcript on the Econtalk website. In essence, Schneier asserts that most people aren't bothered by increases in surveillance and eavesdropping because they are too busy to understand the implications for their personal freedom. This is the same reason why most people do not bother to update their anti-virus software, or process the never ending stream of Windows security patches, or update their iOS applications. The rightly feel they have more important things to think about or they just are not aware of the action expected of them. Schneier is also critical of our anti-terror domestic security measures, arguing that acts of terrorism are too rare to justify the concern we currently attach to is (riding in a car is much more dangerous than airline travel). Authorities are always defending against the *last* threat with their limited resources and PC approaches so the security procedures at airports amount to more theater than real security. I try not to think about this when accidentally taking an iPhone through the metai detector earns me a full body frisk *and* a metal dector wanding. Yikes!
Econtalk is one of my favorite podcasts for the range of topics, interesting guests, and conversation moderated by Dr. Roberts. These notes are from the transcript on the Econtalk website. The entire session transcript is available here:
Schneier is very critical of how we have used our resources to fight terrorism. During the interview, he talked about what he thinks are two major mistakes. The first is that we exaggerate the threat. This is an effect of the psychology of terrorism - it's big, it's spectacular, and scary. The media repeats it endlessly. In our brains we think it's a much larger problem than it is. We don't think things like: well, every month a 9/11's worth of people die in car crashes in the United States because the deaths are not reported widely. We don't say that pigs (bad food) kill more people than terrorists every year. We believe terrorism a huge problem and needs an inordinate amount of security and spending to mitigate. The second error we commit is that we worry about the specifics of what happened rather than the generalities of what could happen (what the 9-11 Commission referred to as "failure of imagination"). We worry about terrorists taking over airplanes with box cutters even though pilots are armed and cockpit doors are armored. Now we're worried about finish lines of marathons even though there is no practical way to provide security at such events. It's almost magical thinking that we somehow have to secure the finish lines at marathons in this country. Think of the history of airline security threats. We take away guns and bombs, they use box cutters. We take away box cutters, they put a bomb in their shoes. We screen shoes, they use liquids. We take away liquids, they put a bomb in their underwear. We put in full body scanners, they are going to do something else. Do we really think we have closed all the security gaps? Again, this overly specific focus on the details of the plot rather than the broad generalities.
Most people aren't bothered by increases in surveillance and eavesdropping. Why? The basic reason is diffuse versus concentrated interests. When people go about their day, they have lots of things to worry about (drop something off at the Post Office, go grocery shopping, take chidren to little league). It's very hard to get riled up about one particular issue because we've got so much to do. Meanwhile, entrenched government and corporate interests all have their support networks (lobbyists or those interesting in aggregating their organization's power) that are dedicated to is making sure their interests are being pushed. This makes it extremely hard to deal with that imbalance. That is hard to array against the general populace that's just busy with a hundred other things. Most people don't even see it as a negative. It's not that they are not aware of it. Another factor is fear. When someone is actually afraid, they'll do pretty much anything not to be afraid any more. If they are told: terrorists, terrorists, terrorists, fear, fear, fear, we'll save you with scanners and cameras. They'll say, great, save me. Read my mail, put cameras in, make me stand in long security lines at airports, search grandmothers in wheelchairs. Just do it and make me feel safe because that message is being pushed--and it's a propaganda message--by government, by police, by the vendors of whatever technology is being sold. Schneier is told regularly on the radio by callers that he is overreacting, that the caller has nothing to hide so why should they care? His response is: What's your salary? What are the names and ages of your children? What is your street address? And they'll say, um, um, um, um; and he'll say: See? Something to hide isn't about illegal activity. It isn't about something you ashamed of. It's about how you present yourself to the world. It's not about secrecy versus non-secrecy. People will go to a doctor and take off their clothes, but it doesn't mean they will do that in any circumstance. The basic reasons for willingness to accept accretion of government power to combat terrorism are multiple: when people are scared, they're willing to not be scared; the privacy arguments are subtle and hard to understand, and the negatives from lack of privacy you only notice when you are missing them.