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9-11’s Surveillance State Legacy

Amidst the inevitable 9-11 retrospectives, I feel like only the Los Angeles Times is putting the past ten years in the proper perspective. Because the longest-lasting legacy of the 9-11 attacks is clearly the terror industry it spawned. Over the weekend the LAT looked at the hundreds of billions of dollars being spent on absurd “security” projects, filling the pockets of contractors, and for little benefit:

“The number of people worldwide who are killed by Muslim-type terrorists, Al Qaeda wannabes, is maybe a few hundred outside of war zones. It’s basically the same number of people who die drowning in the bathtub each year,” said John Mueller, an Ohio State University professor who has written extensively about the balance between threat and expenditures in fighting terrorism.

Today’s entry from the LAT is even better, and something I feel we pay too little attention to. In the decade since 9-11, this has become a surveillance state, and the government collects enormous amounts of data on every man, woman and child in America, in all likelihood too much to process. We all know about this, but it’s important to see all that surveillance together in one package:

…the secret domestic intelligence gathering […] is one of the most significant legacies of Sept. 11. U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies now collect, store and analyze vast quantities of digital data produced by law-abiding Americans. The data mining receives limited congressional oversight, rare judicial review and almost no public scrutiny.

Thanks to new laws and technologies, authorities track and eavesdrop on Americans as they never could before, hauling in billions of bank records, travel receipts and other information. In several cases, they have wiretapped conversations between lawyers and defendants, challenging the legal principle that attorney-client communication is inviolate.

Advocates say the expanded surveillance has helped eliminate vulnerabilities identified after the Sept. 11 attacks. Some critics, unconvinced, say the snooping undermines privacy and civil liberties and leads inevitably to abuse. They argue that the new systems have weakened security by burying investigators in irrelevant information.

“We are caught in the middle of a perfect storm in which every thought we communicate, every step we take, every transaction we enter into is captured in digital data and is subject to government collection,” said Fred H. Cate, a professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law who has written extensively on privacy and security.

We had one moment where this was subject to any debate at all, during the fight over the FISA amnesty legislation. But that was really about a small portion of the total data collection. Most of the surveillance remains a secret. Ron Wyden and Mark Udall tried to tease out a little more this summer, when they tried to get the intelligence community to admit to how they were misinterpreting the Patriot Act to allow for more data collection. But that never went anywhere. From NSA surveillance to national security letters to the AT&T room on Folsom Street in San Francisco, what bits and pieces we do know about point to a giant network Hoovering up every piece of information you let out into the world digitally.

I appreciate the LA Times highlighting this legacy. Nobody really questions why we’ve deprived American civil liberties to this degree, to protect the homeland from a threat that mirrors the threat posed by full bathtubs. Read the whole story for yourself. This has been an inexorable slide downward for ten years, and it shows no sign whatsoever of letting up.

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David Dayen

David Dayen