Goal of security should not destroy privacy

Credit: Frances Soong/Art Staff Credit: Frances Soong/Art Staff
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Terrorists will strike again.

They will slip through our intelligence networks, walk through the gauntlet of full-body scanners and puffer machines and metal detector wands and bomb-sniffing dogs, take a seat in row 16, and kill more innocent people.

Or maybe they will find lost nuclear material from Pakistan or the former Soviet Union, make a bomb with the help of Iranian or American scientists and engineers, take a yacht into Boston Harbor, and attack.

Or maybe they will buy a stolen assault rifle in an American city and walk into an elementary school.

The reality is that we cannot stop every attack any more than we can kill every terrorist. The more surveillance we add, the less freedom we retain. No security camera or wiretapping technology can be perfect, but it can be abused. When full-body scanners exist not just in every airport, but also in sports stadiums and high schools, we will not have “defeated terrorism,” but we will have lost that which we aim to protect.

This Orwellian scenario seems a bit extreme, but it is not so unlikely as it appears. Because our notion of defense against terrorism consists of looking at what terrorists attack and then stopping them from doing it again, so far we have focused almost exclusively on airport security. The theory seems to be that if we make flying inconvenient enough for terrorists, they will give up. This is true for the average American traveler, who views walking through a modern-day airport with the same excitement as going to the dentist, but a sufficiently determined terrorist will still find a way around new security measures. Humans have invented too many ways to destroy each other; we can never be completely secure.

I am not arguing that we remove security checkpoints from airports and allow handguns on flights. Reasonable security is both effective and necessary to stop malicious individuals and discourage terrorist organizations.

However, full-body scanners are one of those “magic” surveillance technologies for which the costs outweigh the benefits. If they become widely used in airports, they are a step, albeit an expensive one, away from other locations. If there is a bombing at the Super Bowl or the Olympics or a school, experts will always argue that the incident could have been detected.

Technologies like full-body scanners are worrisome for a number of reasons. The most discussed of these is privacy. Many Americans do not like the idea of nameless TSA officers seeing under their clothes. This seems to me like the least-concerning effect of the scanners. At least judging by sample images posted online, the results of the scan will hardly be identifiable. The majority of Americans seem to share this lack of concern, as 78 percent of respondents in a USA Today poll supported full-body scanners.

The more concerning consequence of advanced surveillance devices is that once sophisticated scanners begin to be used in airports, they will start becoming accepted by the public. We would not be outraged to have to walk through a metal detector at the Super Bowl. In time, with more attacks and threats of attacks, this could easily be extended to full-body scanners.

The difference between metal detectors, which are not uncommon in public venues, and full-body scanners, which are still controversial, is the type of data they produce. Metal detectors give a basic result: Either something metallic is detected or it is not. On the other hand, a detailed scan gives information that would be extremely valuable to intelligence officers, not to mention advertisers. A full-body scan matched with an identity would be more useful than a passport photo or fingerprint. If a government can listen in on its citizens’ conversations without their knowledge, it should not be trusted to resist the temptation of linking their images with other data.

Successfully maintaining security and preventing terrorist attacks is often a matter of gathering and analyzing information. In government reports, including the one on the Christmas Day attack, there is a tendency to assign blame to one of these two categories — in the most recent case, it was analysis and “connecting the dots.”

However obvious a successful terrorist plot may seem in retrospect, the reality is that it still happened, and it will happen again. We should not expect to be perfect, nor should we make quick and reckless choices when our perfection fails. We should look at terrorism and security in a larger context, one in which the benefits of freedom and privacy often outweigh the costs of absolute security.