A Handy Guide For Comparing Spying Vs. Terrorism Disaster Scenarios

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The week’s news has been a fear-mongering marathon between civil libertarians who are convinced we’re on the road to becoming North Korea, and security hawks who are building bunkers for the inevitable post-cyberattack hell scape. Unfortunately, because the most important facts about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs are top secret, the entire debate has consisted of fear-driven hypotheticals. We can’t change that fact.

But! We can make NSA disaster scenarios easier to compare by detailing the relative harms of privacy invasion vs. terrorist threats in a handy guide on their probability and scope. In ascending order of paranoia, I compare privacy vs. security trade-offs, and conclude with a section that makes sense of why some people fear surveillance more than terrorists.

defense v fear
Paranoia Level: Reads A Newspaper - Defense Tax Bill Vs. Fear Staycations

Cost Comparison: $85 Billion Vs. $75 Billion

We know for sure that both defense and fear of terrorists is burning a hole in America’s pocketbook. Terrorist-driven aversion to flying and tourism has resulted in an estimated $85 billion in lost revenue, according to Eli Berman, an associate professor of economics at University of California, San Diego. In a bit of delightful parity, the combined cost of the U.S. intelligence apparatus is $75 billion, including $1.7 billion for the NSA’s massive new 1-million-square-foot Utah campus, which houses all the servers it needs to retain America’s vast collection of porn, Justin Bieber tweets and cat videos.

stealing company secrets v self-censorshipParanoia Level: Has Purell on a keychain - Stealing Company Secrets Vs. Self-Censorship

Cost: Innovation Vs. Open Dialogue

“Surveillance inclines us to the mainstream and the boring,” wrote Washington University law professor Neil Richards, who argues that the watch-tower effect of omnipresent government spying throttles open dialogue. Personally, I do find myself avoiding the word “terrorist” in emails because I have a vague sense I’ll get flagged by some government agency.

On the security side, some are reasonably worried about theft of company secrets. We know that Chinese hackers are fans of corporate espionage; in one instance, stolen data from Coca-Cola preceded their failed $2.4 billion acquisition of the China Huiyuan Juice Group. According to security firm Mandiant, the Chinese top-level hacking unit, was “busy rummaging through their computers in an apparent effort to learn more about Coca-Cola’s negotiation strategy.”

It’s just as possible that the Russian and Middle Eastern terror cells being tracked by the NSA are also stealing corporate secrets, which could cause more widespread piracy and throttling of innovation.

blackmail v attack
Paranoia Level: Glenn Beck fan - Whistleblower Blackmail vs. Stopping Small Scale Attack

Cost: Hundres of lives and hundreds of millions of dollars vs. Hundres of lives and hundreds of millions of dollars

For the most part, the NSA only targets terrorist suspects — the rest of the data collects cobwebs on a faceless server. But civil liberty critics worry that nefarious middle managers at the NSA could blackmail whistleblowers or policymakers that threaten their agenda. Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly worried:

“Did you hear about the IRS scandal? Did you hear about the IRS taking personal information and feeding it out to left-wing websites?… You’re telling me that can’t happen here? It absolutely can happen! So, for example, some conservative senator calls Trixie at the Hot Licks Massage Parlor, guess who knows it? And guess who can put it out any time they want?”

To get a handle on how bad this kind of blackmail could be, the greatest email scandal ever uncovered outed Army General David Patreaus after the FBI found saucy messages between him and a mistress. Arguably the largest whistleblower was Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg. Both Patreaus and Ellsberg had major impacts on two foreign wars — Petraeus executed the successful Iraqi Surge and Ellsberg accelerated public pressure to pull out from Vietnam. Taken together, it’s reasonable to assume that without their contributions, hundreds of more soldiers might have been killed and hundreds of millions of dollars more would have been wasted.

On the other hand, NSA hawks claim that Internet and phone snooping foiled “dozens” of terrorist attacks, including Najibullah Zazi’s failed plot to bomb the New York subway. All told, that’s probably hundreds of lives and hundreds of millions of dollars in infrustructure repair saved.

tyranny v nuclear war
Paranoia Level: Tinfoil — Orwellian Tyranny vs. Nuclear War

Costs: A life not worth living vs. actually not living

If you hold survivalist training in your end-of-days bunker, chances are this next category feels like home. The libertarian op-eds are rife with insinuations that America is on the fast track to a perpetual 1984-style tyranny — or what they call Tuesday in North Korea.

“This isn’t an argument about how tyranny is inevitable. It is an attempt to grab America by the shoulders, give it a good shake, and say: Yes, it could happen here, with enough historical amnesia, carelessness, and bad luck,” warned the very sharp and otherwise level-headed resident libertarian at The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf, in a (popular) post titled, “All the Infrastructure a Tyrant Would Need, Courtesy of Bush and Obama.”

If you think government monitoring Instagrams of quinoa waffles at Manhattan brunches is a one-way ticket to Orwellian dystopia, then the cost of the NSA’s spying program is the end of self-government as we know it.

On the other hand, if you’d like to see the TSA conduct more cavity searches, you probably think a police state is the only way to stop a real-life Jack Bauer plotline from happening. 4th-Amendment fanclub president Dick Cheney predicted a “high probability” of a nuclear or biological attack that kills “hundreds of thousands of Americans” unless programs like the NSA keep constant watch over Americans.

But we think Cheney’s being modest: if we did suffer a nuclear attack, we’d have to retaliate against someone, and that could spark an armed conflict between the entire Middle East and their Asian supporters. So as long as we’re wearing a tinfoil hat, let’s just go ahead and admit that we’re talking about all-out thermonuclear war.

The Psychology Of Which Scenario You Think Is Plausible

Ultimately, skepticism is a visceral reaction: there’s no purely fact-based way of thinking about the future. Without sufficient information, we reasonably fall back on our assumptions about the way the world operates. For instance, we know that free-market enthusiasts are more fearful of government regulation than climate change.

While there isn’t any good evidence about why some people fear the NSA more than others, Yale’s Cultural Cognition lab has my favorite political typology for predicting what kinds of programs we support. They divide political worldviews into four categories:

  1. Authoritarian (think Dick Cheney and his tradition-loving social conservatives)
  2. Individualists (libertarians)
  3. Egalitarians (social justice fans and card-carrying members of the ACLU)
  4. Communitarians (many have suggested Obama is a Communitarian, an ideology that stresses active citizenship, decentralization, and collective good)

If you have individualist or egalitarian tendencies, chances are the NSA freaks you out. This helps explain why the traditional rivals, Glenn Beck (Individualist) and Michael Moore (Equalitarian), have found rare common ground in opposition to government surveillance.

If you tend to be more collectivist, either because you have a compulsive need for stability (Authoritarian), or you think everyone has an obligation to contribute to the public good (Communitarian), chances are that you don’t fear invasions of privacy (Disclosure: I have very strong Communitarian tendencies).

To be sure, we have no other choice but to go with our political instincts. The debate over the NSA is entirely hypothetical; the public has no evidence on how surveillance has been abused or leveraged to stop terrorists.

So what’s the lesson? Be respectful and open-minded. Without evidence, we’re all equally irrational.

[Images: Flickr/thematthewknot/Carolyn Tiry/Kelly Teague]