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Bruce Schneier
Slouching toward Big Brother

Rarely do we discuss how little identification has to do with security, and how broad surveillance of everyone doesn't really prevent terrorism.

Bruce writes about how security is a trade-off and how what we're giving up is not worth what we're getting in the war on terror through surveillance in the United States.


I'm sure it's not difficult for anyone to recall how they felt on Sept. 11. To me, on that day, the world felt mighty unsafe. The Americans and it's allies have carried out an incredibly huge and complex job in restoring a sense security and stability. It's easy for armchair critics, in the comfort and safety of their own homes, to pontificate on what should or should not be done.

Bruce Schneier writes: ..."Terrorism is no different. We need to weigh each security countermeasure. Is the additional security against the risks worth the costs? Are there smarter things we can be spending our money on? How does the risk of terrorism compare with the risks in other aspects of our lives: automobile accidents, domestic violence, industrial pollution, and so on? Are there costs that are just too expensive for us to bear?" ... "Few people remind us how minor the terrorist threat really is"...

And, he ends his piece by saying "...and we didn't even get any temporary safety in return." He writes utter twaddle. I'm sure glad he is not in charge of protecting us.

His other writing is a bit more nuanced: basically that much of what is being done now will not have the desired effect.
I recommend reading more than just this one article before coming to the conclusion that "he writes utter twaddle."

For the sake of argument, consider what he's saying.

Looking at the National Center for Health Statistics numbers for 1999 of 2,391,399 deaths: heart disease claimed 725,191 (30%), malignant neoplasms 549,838 (23%), cerebrovascular disease 167,366 (7%)...and so forth down the list.

Assume for a second that these stats are probably pretty similar for last year and then compare how many Americans terrorism claimed in the same time frame. Sounds like part of his point is that we have much more reason to be scared of heart disease and neoplasms (whatever the hell that is) than getting blown up or shot by terrorists.

Would you rather the gov't spend our tax dollars on finding ways that prevents a statistically more deadly cause of death, or spend billions to try to prevent something that at the end of the day has been proven next to impossible to prevent?

Not that we should be complacent. But there has to be a better way to balance the risk/reward of this equation. What (liberties, dollars, etc..) are we willing to give up..and what are we willing to settle for in return?

so far, the evidence seems to suggest that we (americans) are willing to give up just about anything if it can be wrapped in a flag or pointed at a terrorist.

Schneier made just about the same point in his last Crypto-Gram.

There is a large difference between perceived risk level and real risk level. The probability to get attacked by a terrorist in America is extremely low, compared to many other risks.

But the level of attention to that particular risk is extremely high. And measures like fingerprinting everyone coming to the U.S. will keep tourists and scientists out, but not terrorists.

Once the U.S. becomes a formerly free country, there will be no one to liberate Americans, considering all the successful WMD related program activities they had. That constitution America got with the help of their French friends is nice enough. But constitutional guarantees are worth only as much as people's will to stand up for them.

If we want real risks displayed then we should ban freedom of the press/speech and make sure that every news story ranked and reported in order of true risk/relevance to the audience. Then every night you'd see the media saying

"Our top story tonight: 1,986 people died of a massive nationwide epidemic of heart disease related ailments. The chronic killer has taken 340,121 lives so far this year. Let's go to Bob at the Cheesecake Factory and interview some more obsese people likely to become victims of heart disease. Congress is considering legislation to severly penalize anyone who conusmes more than 1500 calories per day. In other news, auto accidents killed 890 more people today. Class action lawsuits have stopped all auto sales putting 650,000 out of work."

By this standard, losing 400 people on a plane crash shouldn't even make the news, let alone someone being murdered/raped/swindled. The loss of a space shuttle, a hostage situation that ends peacefully, etc. etc. wouldn't be news either. At least the press would only need to create new content every 6 months or so. Heck, just get rid of the news and publish an almanac every week.

If a modern politician addressed real risk instead of perceived risk, he'd be out of office immediately. The societal harms of 100 people dying of terrorism are bigger than the harms of 100 people dying of something like heart disease because of the fear and anxiety it generates. If people stop flying, stop congregating in large numbers, vacate all high rise buildings and generally stop living their lives, the ripples are much bigger. Similarly, if a flawed anti-terrorism action makes people feel safer without actually changing the risk level, society still benefits--it's the placebo effect on a macro level.

You are all missing something very important here. There is a huge difference between all these risks you're talking about and terrorism. The difference is voluntary behavior versus involuntary, or voluntary assumption of risk versus involuntary...

We all voluntarily eat and drive the way we want to. This is an expression of our freedom to seek happiness in our lives. To the extent that the happiness we gain outweighs the risks, we do these things. There's nothing that doesn't have risks...

Death due to terrorism, etc., is involuntary. It is an infringement of our freedom and our right to choose our actions, plan our future, and basically pursue happiness, inflicted by other people, not an accident. Although we assume other risks voluntarily, we know what they are for the most part. If I become obese, I know I'm in for it eventually. If I just get a plane ticket, barring an unforeseeable accident, I want to know I'm going to get there.

So terrorism, rape, etc, are much more an infringement of our freedoms than any of the other causes of death out there, because they take away our right to choose our actions and manage our own risks. They are an affront to the entire goal of a society that wants to support individual freedom and autonomy. This is why we focus on them more than on the other things, and rightfully so, imho.

Your point is correct, but the original article didn't say we should concentrate on traffic accidents and obesity more than terrorism: it said there is little correlation between identification and security, and "broad surveillance of everyone doesn't really prevent terrorism."
And yet that's what we seem to be doing, with massive fingerprinting of tourists and the creation of giant databases. He posits that we've "squandered an enormous amount of liberty" but did not get even temporary safety in return.
His other essays deal more specifically with what constitutes effective security.

Good point Trevor.

However, unless you're the victim, terrorism (murder, rape, etc..) itself doesn't take away freedom.

I, and I'm sure others, view that it can be the (over)response to the actual threat that takes away your freedom. Put another way, giving in and allowing your freedoms to be gradually eroded, or impinged upon by the gov't (or whomever), gives the victory to the terrorists not to you. That is exactly what they want to happen.

Only you can give away your absolute right to choose your own actions and manage your own risks.

I agree, Scott. I was just addressing one point. But you're right -- there's always the chance that we will overreact to problems like terrorism to such an extent that our lives are worse-off as a whole than before.

On the other hand, aren't we willing to fight to the death sometimes, in order to destroy something that's extremely wrong? Death or anything approaching it certainly makes our lives much less happy and free, but we are willing to go that far sometimes because we think it's right. Other times, we're willing to go that far simply because we're _afraid_.

I think the latter case is the one we're trying to avoid. :) But with regard to terrorism, I could definitely understand people who feel that fighting terrorism is worth giving up a whole lot for, simply on moral grounds, since it is so utterly wrong...

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Bruce Schneier - Slouching toward Big Brother from The Decline and Fall of the American Empire
February 8, 2004 1:33 PM

Bruce Schneier Slouching toward Big Brother Rarely do we discuss how little identification has to do with security, and how broad surveillance of everyone doesn't really prevent terrorism. Read More