Have noticed in the news that due to communications chatter being picked up by the various monitors, that the US has decided that an attack is imminent and has closed a number of embassies in the Middle East and elsewhere. Canada has also announced closure of certain embassies based on the same chatter. A few folks have even come out and announced that this was just like the run-up to 9/11. Oh, really…
Now, before I get into my thoughts, having mentioned 9/11 I must state that I knew a few people who were killed in the Twin Towers attack. And before the towers collapsed, there were communications from there to some of the people I was helping at the time. I simply cannot watch any of the re-enactments, it was just too personal to bear going through again.
But back to the present — a couple of thoughts about this whole business. What is, after all, the purpose of terrorism? In my mind it is to create a state of anxiety, of terror, about what might happen. Not the destruction but the fear of what might be harmed. From this standpoint Al Qaeda has been wildly successful — and have recruited a number of major governments to assist (voluntarily, I hope…). The US is certainly facilitating maintenance of this state of anxiety by its public announcements and embassy closures. But more to that, the security structures that have been setup (whose actual efficacy is a closely guarded secret) have syphoned billions of dollars away from things like schools, food programs, health care, jobs and infrastructure maintenance. In essence, this defence against the dark arts has actively hurt the country at a time when resources for good are in short supply.
And the thought occurs that perhaps the best way to fight terrorism is to deny them their state of anxiety — that is almost exactly opposite of what is being done. What was that phrase from WW2, ‘stay calm and carry on…’. Perhaps if the chatter were noticed the most effective thing would be to quietly move vulnerable staff out of the way, beef up the security and sharpen the bayonets — but not trumpet your fears to the world.
But then, there is this issue of the chatter… problem with monitoring communications, especially when it is globally known that one is monitoring communications, is that this monitoring could be used. I am sure that everyone knows that public communications channels are being monitored — so the cheapest way to trigger losses on the other side would be to have an increase in chatter on the media. Could be last months pizza orders (in code)… cheap for the attackers but boy, look at the West scramble…
And there is the problem of the actual monitoring captures — glad Prism and all the other code named programs are snarfing up conversations, emails, web surfings and whatever. And creating markets for vast disk farms holding inconceivable amounts of data… Makes big disk drives cheaper so I can afford more space for music and videos… But back to the government. They are building a vast pile of data. Hope they enjoy it. Problem with all this data is that it is not really actionable information. It is raw data that requires both pattern analysis and context to give it meaning. But that is tough to get working from first principles — even assuming an insight into the intentions of the monitored. And unless these folks are really stupid, they know they are being monitored, so should be acting appropriately. If it were me, the conversation would not be `get the bomb to west 44th street by 2pm on Tuesday…`but something more cryptic. Coded messages have been used for thousands of years and it usually needs more than the raw data stream to provide meaning — at least at first. Meanwhile the raw data piles up. And the more data they gather the deeper the pile grows and I suspect the harder to derive anticipatory clues. Then add the rivalries among the different security agencies (are there really 50 of them?) and it is a script right out of the Three Stooges.
And has all of this snooping and transportation security theatre produced any real results, I wonder… Oh, the assertion is that of course they have. But for security reasons it is all a secret. Meanwhile, billions of dollars pour down the security theater rathole. And we are all becoming less free — in part because of the terrorists and what they have done to the world (for no reason I understand). But more important, because our governments are actively working with them to facilitate their desired states of anxiety — because it suits the ends of believers in big, all-controlling governments. Problem with the X-files paranoid view of the shadow government — it was not anywhere near dark enough. Terrorism is winning when the very governments help their ends.
Addendum — February 2015
The tragedy continues. What was once the world’s longest undefended border has been closed and one can only cross it by showing the right kind of papers and be subjected to security grilling and inspection. Businesses that had been setup based on the free passage of goods back and forth are struggling. ‘Papers, where are your papers…’ used to be a joke but no longer. In parts of the US I understand that police may randomly stop and demand people prove their right to be there. And there are prison camps setup for the unlucky ones while the system decides what to do with them and where, elsewhere, to ship them. There is wide-spread interception of communications and huge sums being spent on developing AI programs to identify which are the messages of the bad guys. Interestingly related to this has been the recent revelations that the widely touted voice commands of our phones, TV sets and probably cars are being implemented by listening to us and sending that elsewhere for processing by 3rd parties — telescreens, anyone? And we paid for them!
But more worrying are the spread of new laws to ‘keep us safe’ that broaden the definition of what constitutes a threat and loosening the constraints allowing the spy agencies to attack us on their initiative. Makes me wonder where the line is between keeping us safe, disrupting active terror plots and a widespread practice called civil seizure? Across North American police forces are allowed to seize property on their initiative, in case it was the proceeds of a crime [the theory goes] and divert those private assets into their own coffers. There are rules about how much they get to keep and how much must be passed up the line to ‘higher’ levels of government. The victim then has to fight the government on their own dime to attempt retrieval. Read today that two years ago the RCMP broke into 750 homes in Alberta, some of which were not threatened with flooding, and confiscated licensed, properly stored guns — return of which to the rightful owners is still ‘in process’. And don’t get me started on the roundup of demonstrators and bystanders for the G20. Elsewhere governments are engaged in extrajudicial killing across national borders — no due process. Orwell was nowhere near pessimistic enough — those institutions we trusted to keep us safe are gradually becoming more of a threat to our traditional rights and freedoms than the distant bad guys.
I am more optimistic than Orwell — hopeful that his vision of ‘a boot stamping on a human face forever’ is not what we are building for our grandchildren. But as these structures ossify and consume the resources that would otherwise have gone to more productive uses — one wonders what sort of cataclysm it will take to restore the balance?