Scanning Cargo Containers Is More Important than Scanning Emails
The US has built huge internet surveillance infrastructures, but failed to implement its own 9/11 law about maritime cargo security. The risk of an attack on a US port or the smuggling of weapons of mass destruction (or their components) in shipping containers is great. Compared to the importance of scanning more cargo, the benefits of scanning emails appear quite small. A serious debate about the right priorities for counter-terrorism and cost/benefit analysis of current policies is needed.
While US and other Western governments claim that internet surveillance has prevented several terrorist attacks, it could also be argued that internet surveillance catches only some of the stupid terrorists, who can only pull off relatively minor attacks. (But not all of them, e.g. not the Boston bombers.)
Smart terrorists like Osama bin Laden, who have the brains and resources to kill tens of thousands of people, do not communicate over the internet. (Or they use very serious encryption, which the NSA computers won't break in time.) They might plan sophisticated operations for American, French, Dutch or German harbors, as the 9/11 Commission report concluded that "opportunities to do harm are as great, or greater, in maritime or surface transportation."
In 2007 Congress mandated that by July 2012 no cargo container would be allowed to enter the United States unless it had been checked by radiation detection and nonintrusive imaging technology. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) missed that deadline and gave itself a two-year extension. Still only 4 to 5 percent of cargo containers undergo the demanded physical scanning either at the foreign port of departure or upon arrival to the US.
Representatives Bennie Thompson, Jerrold L. Nadler and Edward J. Markey noted in their Op-Ed Cargo, the Terrorists' Trojan Horse that as the Harvard political scientist Graham T. Allison has put it, a nuclear attack is "far more likely to arrive in a cargo container than on the tip of a missile.'" Even with this knowledge, DHS has still "wasted precious time arguing that it would be too expensive and too difficult, logistically and diplomatically, to comply with the law. This is unacceptable."
The Members of Congress write that "an attack on an American port could cause tens of thousands of deaths and cripple global trade, with losses ranging from $45 billion to more than $1 trillion. (...) Homeland Security says it would cost $16 billion or more to meet the mandate, but that projection assumes that the department would pay to acquire, maintain and operate scanning equipment and related operations, without any offsetting fees from companies in the global supply chain. In contrast, Stephen E. Flynn, an expert in terrorism and port security at Northeastern University, has said a scanning system could be implemented in every major container port in the world at a cost of $1.5 billion, and that the costs could largely be absorbed by companies doing business at the ports." It comes down to approximately $15 per container.
Are the Obama administration and other Western governments setting their priorities right for counter-terrorism? Or are they neglecting port security in the hope that cheaper NSA surveillance of internet traffic will uncover terrorist plots? Such a rationale would be wrong. The political costs of massive internet surveillance are significant, while the benefits are doubtful. Companies should pay for the costs of port security.
If I am correct in assuming that only stupid terrorists with limited capabilities are likely to be caught by communication surveillance, then we need to debate whether the cost of privacy invasions is worth the benefit of preventing relatively minor terrorist attacks.
Neither data privacy nor security should be seen as absolute values. Accepting any terrorism as a risk of life in "The New Normal" seems to be blasphemy for many US politicians and pundits, although they have accepted domestic gun violence (like the Connecticut elementary school shooting) for decades. These crimes as well as spontaneous "do it yourself"-terrorism like the Woolwich stabbing cannot be entirely prevented by internet surveillance anyway. If we want our governments to protect rather than invade our privacy, then we should not watch/read media that regularly overreacts to every terrorism report, because that sends the wrong message to our politicians about our priorities.