Despite what all those ex- and current FBI and CIA and who-knows-what directors say in the press, the greatest terrorist threat is from lone wolfs (lone wolves? I’m going with wolfs). All things being equal, it’s harder to detect suspect activity when nobody is talking about it. The bigger the group, the greater the chance of a weak link. A little bomb can do as much damage as a big one if it’s planted in the right place. Attacks on aircraft rightly woke us up to a new kind of attack. Bombs in pre-security queues at airports seem like a logical next step and I’m surprised this hasn’t happened yet. It wouldn’t take the coordination of a 9/11. It would take individuals with a fairly basic understanding of chemistry.
But on the other hand, lone wolfs are more likely to be detected by mass surveillance. Someone on a housing estate buying large amounts of fertilizer, for example. People searching “how to make bombs”.
That sounds like a good case for mass surveillance but it isn’t. We have to think about the trade-off between false positives and false negatives and the relative impact of each. But we’re not doing that. I suspect that mass surveillance doesn’t help us crack large terrorist organisations to a significant degree. I suspect it might help us chase down individuals who might be or not be wannabe terrorists. But I’d sure as shit turn up as a false positive just because of the sort of things I write about.
That’s the bewildering false dichotomy we tend to hear from former directors of intelligence agencies, isn’t it? We give up [unspecified thing] for [unspecified reward] otherwise we’re [probably fucked for unspecified reason].
There are other options.