Saturday, August 06, 2005

Is the war on terror worth it?

The NZ herald asks "Is the war on terror worth it?"

They propose a number of possible problems with governments being given extra power e.g.
Would you allow authorities to install and monitor closed circuit TV cameras in your house, if it helped prevent terrorism?

Impositions that sound unduly alarmist in 2005 may not seem so absurd a generation or two from now as imperilled western societies erode personal freedoms in order to ramp up national security.

Sounds quite bad doesn’t it? But the problem is that we are assuming that the threat of terrorism is constant and so too are our methods of controlling our government and that we cannot be trusted to take rational positions on a case by case basis and thus considering these things as 'by definition" over reactions.

Many (including myself) believe that terrorism will become a more significant threat in the future. At the moment many on the left are right in as far as an act of terrorism just kills a few hundred people and a country of a few million can just absorb that and tolerate terrorism (as the civil libertarians might have us do). The NZ government for example would probably not put CCTV in your house under the threat of the current sort of terrorism like this. In fact as you can tell from alquaeda's gloating regarding the London bombings the media coverage and panic that occurs really just serves to excite those who plan to bomb us.

HOWEVER while the NZ government would probably not put CCTV in your house for those reasons what if the threat was in the order of thousands of people running around trying to plant weaponized Ebola? This is of course being a bit alarmist (I’m just matching alarmism with alarmism here) but the problem is that weapons are indeed getting smaller cheaper and easier to acquire. At some stage it wont be atomic bombs that are the most dangerous weapon it will be something vastly worse and while we may have that weapon under control we will probably have long since lost control of various biological weapons and potentially nuclear weapons just because it will no longer take a huge facility to develop them. If that was the case then the government might well pass such drastic measures but surely the potential to do that if required is appropriate and not something to be scared of "in itself".

But it is not even as bad as we imagine - for example if there were CCTV recording devices in all major streets no one would have the time to go and view them all BUT if a crime was committed there they would catch the guilty person. There would be far less need for police violence or unjust prosecutions because they would not be acting at such an information disadvantage. Thus there is only theoretical invasion of your privacy if no one ever sees it. Furthermoe, our attempts to protect our privacy combined wiht our desire for criminals to get caught etc really jsut forces the invasion of our privacy into other less obvious places. for example if there was CCTV on every car and every corner and in every school there would be no need for locker searches no potential for he says she says cases of police abuse or car crashes no need for extensive delatys questioning strip searches or whatever. One would just go to the recorded evidence.

What we need to do is instead of focusing on stopping these sorts of technologies we should focus on the controls we can place on the government and police to ensure they are handled correctly. For example if there is surveillance of citizens there should also be surveillance of police and politicians available on the public record and the potential for them to be fired or prosecuted in the event of a sandal and records of what surveillance they view and why.

People also attack the system on the grounds of things that might go wrong if it was implemented in a stupid manner.

Queensland Council of Civil Liberties president Michael Cope said a national ID card database would create a huge target for computer hackers.

Again obviously this is a systems problem but with the proper surveillance it would not be possible to get away with this sort of fraud because you would be recorded doing it it would be flagged and you would be caught. So the argument for blanket civil liberties is actually the reason why there is a problem.

As noted above, however, terrorism is still a small problem one that we would do better to pay less attention to. we should not design our policy YET just to stop terrorism or in a kneejerk manner - a wider view to providing a just and safe society is a more appropriate aim.


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