The great paradox of our national security

The great paradox of our national security

Summary: Freedom vs. security. It's a challenge as old as the nation. It's a great paradox, perhaps the greatest paradox in the history of civilization. How do we retain our privacy and our freedom while still defending against horrific threats?


On the morning of September 11, 2001, between the hours of 8am and 11am New York time, terrorists attacked our nation. Nearly 3,000 people were killed and more than 6,000 were injured.

At 2:49 pm Boston time on April 15, 2013, two bombs exploded in the middle of the Boston Marathon. Five people died and 280 reported injuries.

In the dozen years between these two dates, there have been numerous plots by enemies foreign and domestic. While each of these plots (and, in fact, the events of 2001 and 2013) were based on widely differing motivations, the end goal was the same: kill Americans.

Most of these plots haven't been covered in the news media. A crowd of people not being killed, someone not dying, bridges not being bombed: all of these are not news. The news media rarely covers an event that doesn't happen.

But just because these events didn't happen -- just because Americans didn't die on those days -- that doesn't mean nothing at all happened. In fact, it's been through the tireless (and very dangerous) work of many of our government servants — members of law enforcement, employees at agencies with initials like FBI, CIA, and NSA — that these non-events were, in fact, non-events.

There are bad people out there. Fact. They want to kill Americans. Fact. Many thousands more Americans would have died if it weren't for America's counter-terrorism operations. Fact.

This brings me to the recent, breathless coverage about the NSA and Verizon. Our own Zack Whittaker has done a great job covering the story. As just about everyone with a pulse now knows, the NSA and Verizon are accused of sharing phone metadata on many customers. Another story broke later from the same UK source, claiming FBI, NSA said to be secretly mining data from U.S. tech giants.

There are a ton of issues here. First, although neither the government nor Verizon have denied these activities, neither have they confirmed them. Second, the source of these reports, one Glenn Greenwald has long had an anti-American government bent. He and I went at it over Twitter back in the day because he's been an enthusiastic supporter of Wikileaks and Bradley Manning, and I'm not a fan of trusted military servicemen stealing government secrets and providing them to our enemies.

The point is, these stories can't be fully confirmed. They've been posted by a known anti-US security activist writing for a publication operating in another nation.

UPDATE: DNI denounces these stories, confirming some of the details

That said, there's undoubtedly some truth in these stories. Here's the thing: protecting America is hard. We're a nation of more than 300 million people with freedoms unlike any ever experienced by a populace in human history. Every one of us is legally a loose cannon.

At the same time, America (like any nation) has always had enemies in the form of nation states, political and religious movements, organized crime, and just plain wackos.

The scope of the problem is huge, nearly impossible. We expect our government to protect us from threats that can come in any of hundreds of millions of different directions. When one or two get by, we cry out loud and we express extreme anger -- not just at the bad guys, but at our government for letting it happen.

Freedom vs. security. It's a challenge as old as the nation.

In recent years, it has become apparent that it's simply too dangerous to let security lapse. With threats ranging from dirty bombs to pressure cookers to mis-directed passenger airplanes, the potential for death and destruction is off the charts.

The best way to prevent this is to find and arrest the perpetrators after they plot but before they kill. In the days of old, the way this was done was with plain ol' shoe leather: investigation. Ringing door bells. Getting search warrants. Sending thousands of agents out to search for one criminal.

But our country is way too big now, with way too many people, for that to be possible. We need to use data analytics to help solve the problem. We have to sift through whatever details the courts and judges allow.

We've been doing this sort of sifting for years. Mostly, it's been of communications into and out of the U.S., not between American citizens. But the September 11 bombers were inside the U.S., as were the Boston Marathon bombers in 2013. Just sifting international data wouldn't have stopped those atrocities.

And that brings us to things like phone records. This is a double-edged sword. Most of the wailing and crying of the last day has been focused on one of those edges: our privacy. I'll come back to that in a minute.

But first, let's look at the protection side of the equation a bit more. We want and expect our government to protect us, and big data analytics is one such way. Were we sure, absolutely sure, that our officials were only sifting through that data to find bomb-toting terrorists, we'd all feel more comfortable.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government, like all governments throughout history, is occupied by humans with human strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes law enforcement goes too far. Sometimes it becomes overzealous. Sometimes it sacrifices its soul in pursuit of its prey.

And that's what makes most of us nervous about the Verizon story and the other stories about our cloud vendors sharing our data. At what point does a search for a terrorist become an IRS vendetta against a someone with political leanings in opposition to those in power? At what point do laws meant to counter terrorism get applied (with the loosest of justifications) to spying on members of the press?

At what point do we lose faith in our government? At what point do we not only not trust our government to protect us, but expect our government to be actively hostile to us? At what point does our government stop being our friend and become the creepy predator down the street?

This is why the NSA/Verizon story is so huge. It's because we've lost faith in our government to be on our side. We could all go on for days arguing where that loss of faith occurred, but that's not the point. There has been an undeniable loss of faith over the last decades, and it's probably here to stay.

The problem is, even though many of us have lost faith in the government, we're still at risk. We're still threatened by terrorists, rogue nation states, hostile actors, organized crime, and nutballs.

We may have lost faith in our government. We may not trust our government at all. But we still expect our government to protect us from terrorists and hostile nations.

It's a great paradox, perhaps the greatest paradox in the history of civilization. How do we retain our privacy and our freedom while still defending against horrific threats?

We use technology as a defense. Big data analytics. It's the core of the NSA/Verizon story and will be a major story for years to come.

Understand that our government must sometimes do worrisome things to protect us. But it's up to us to protect our nation's soul. That's how it's always been in America. It's our greatest truth. It's our greatest strength.

When we see them crossing that line, when we see government officials flaunting the Constitution for reasons other than national defense, then it's time -- to quote the great Jean Luc Picard -- to peaceably insist, "The line must be drawn here! This far, no further!"

Our government is responsible for protecting our nation. It's up to our law enforcement and national security agencies to enforce "This far, no further" with our enemies and those who would do our society harm.

When our own government crosses the line (as they are wont to do from time to time) and they impinge on the very freedoms we hold so dear, we must use our power. We must use the power of the Internet, the power of the press, the power of social networking and the power of the ballot.

We must also use good judgment. We need to understand that our officials have a very hard job to do and we can't hamstring them when they're doing it. But we also can't let them get out of control or forget who their protecting.

This far, no further comes from the people, who hold these truths to be self-evident.

Topics: Privacy, Government, Government US, Security


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • It's not as difficult as you might think.

    "How do we retain our privacy and our freedom while still defending against horrific threats?"

    The key word in that sentence is "threat". There are three parts to a security analysis - threat is just one part and it's the part most people stall at.

    A threat is 'something that can happen.'

    The other two are 'risk' (the likelihood that it will happen) and 'cost' (the consequences of it happening). You have to look at all three.

    You also have to look at threats in historical context because even events that have happened may not be as likely to reoccur as one might think. In fact, when an event occurs, the perceived probability of reoccurrence actually goes up even when the real probability stays the same or goes down.

    9/11 was, in a great number of ways, an amazingly confluence of improbable events. Foreign nationals who should have been flagged early (they were flagged, just not stopped) were allowed not only allowed to obtain jet pilot training (and incomplete and oddly focused training) they managed to get into a major airport.

    Still, that's not too bad... where things went even worse - at the time, the standard operating procedure was that if someone hijacks a plane, you let them get to where they want to go, then negotiate with that country for the return of the plane and hostages. Most countries hijackers tended to go to actually get pissed off because they don't want to get into a fight with the US. The notion of using civilian aircraft as missiles, while considered, wasn't part of the common mindset. It is now.

    Even when it became clear what was happening, no one was sure what to do next. No one wants to shoot down civilian aircraft over a big city - it's a double whammy and one that hasn't come up often. There was a lot of trying to figure out what happened and what to do.

    That allowed the pilots to hit the World Trade Center. But even THAT was amazingly bad luck. The WTC was designed to handle that. Where things went wrong was that the assumption was that the plane was damaged and would dump its fuel before impact. Obviously, that didn't happen here. The fuel caught fire and that weakened the support struts on the upper floors and caused the building to collapse by pancaking. This repeated shortly afterwards. If that hadn't happened, there would have been maybe a hundred injuries and deaths tops.

    Worse still, rather than evacuating the buildings immediately, the assumption was that the main danger was over and that now they'd have to deal with slower threats like fire. The decision (a bad one in retrospect) was to keep everyone where they were until authorities could either declare the danger over, or to assist in evacuation. This made some sense at the time because of the three tier elevator system in use. The upper tier wasn't usable.

    The attack on the Pentagon was vastly less successful and of course United 93 failed entirely because by this point in time, people with cellphones had found out what was happening and realized the only hope they had was to take out the terrorists.. Sadly, they failed. But this is something people keep missing - the new 'normal' is that if terrorists try to take over a plane, they passengers will assume it's all or nothing.

    So let's get this clear: 9/11 was an amazing confluence of highly improbably events which have become MORE unlikely, not less.

    9/11 is also the single largest terrorist incident in 30 years. In fact, in the last 30 years there have been about 3,800 deaths cause by incidents that can be considered terrorist actions. of those 2,900 were 9/11. that means over the remaining 29 years, just 900 people have died because of terrorism in the US. (Note, the Oklahoma City bombing accounts for 168 of those.) That's an average of 30 people per year. To put that in perspective, 38,000 people die of fire arm inflicted injuries. 41,000 people die from car injuries.

    51 people per year die of *lightning strikes* each year. Yes, your chances of dying by lighting strike is almost twice as great as being killed by a terrorist.

    So, the first thing we have to accept is the real risk of terrorist attack. It's VERY small.

    That leaves cost. Well, I address that a bit when I talk about the number of deaths. If you argue that ANY death by terrorists is too many - then you have to seriously explain why the US doesn't do more to regulate guns, make cars safer, regulate drinking and heck - prevent death by smoking and lightning strikes. All of those (except maybe the lighting strikes) are insanely easy to reduce. So, looking at it the other way around, if all of those are acceptable losses, then the tiny number of deaths by terrorists are also acceptable.

    Finally, there's a consequence to what we've done. We've boxed ourselves into a bad trap. See, by overreacting and implementing draconian security measures in response to a rare event, we've accidently biased the system. If tomorrow we said 'yeah - this was stupid - next week on Monday, we're going to return to the security levels we had in 2000 with a few improvements' Tuesday would be a nightmarish hell as every idiot who wants to make a name for him or herself tries to do something stupid like blow up an airplane to get their name in the history books.

    Welcome to the nightmare or kneejerk and emotion based security analysis.
    • "Boxed ourselves in"

      Good analysis - blowback!
    • Now this is a comprehensive analysis ...

      And, the fact that we had all this information BEFORE 9/11 (and before Boston) just goes to prove that, no matter how much you try to coordinate efforts, the same kinds of things will be missed the next time around.

      The reality is that we are protected from terrorism primarily because we are surrounded by two very large bodies of water - and crossing them by air has lots of checks and cross-checks. We share a northern border with a cooperative ally who shares a common language and our southern neighbor, while cooperative, has far too many of its own problems with drug trafficking to have to worry about middle-easterners - who would be easy to identify if they chose to come into America from the south.
      M Wagner
  • Good Guys Value Freedom, Bad Guys Don't

    If the good guys start acting just like the bad guys, what makes them better than the bad guys?
  • Something for everyone

    No pulled punches - as usual, David. I think you've managed to lay out the issues in this piece with something to offend everyone, no matter what they believe. And that's why I'm recommending that everyone read it. There are no easy answers here. Simple aphorisms about freedom and security aren't sufficient.
  • A bit Xenophobic?

    From David's Article
    "The point is, these stories can't be fully confirmed. They've been posted by a known anti-US security activist writing for a publication operating in another nation."

    Definition of Xenophobic
    A person unduly fearful or contemptuous of that which is foreign, especially of strangers or foreign peoples.
    • Those with axes to grind...

      ...tend to only release information that supports their own cases (without regard to how reliable the information is).

      Some skepticism is therefore called for.
      John L. Ries
      • Axes to grind or not, everyone clings to only those "truths" that ...

        ... support their belief system. This is human nature. Only a public debate will clear the air. Unfortunately, the each branch of government hides behind its own secrets. Thus, this public debate will, most likely, never take place.
        M Wagner
    • The journalist at the Guardian is anti-American, not Snowden, ...

      ... the American contractor who made the information public, and who has since spoken to the press before going underground. Right or wrong, Snowden will live to regret becoming a whistle-blower. The NSA will hunt him down and bury him! He will never have his day in court and we will never know the truth about the extent of this illegal behavior, and unless we are VERY LUCKY, the Supreme Court will never have the opportunity to judge the Constitutionality of the Patriot Act.
      M Wagner
  • Wrong

    "At the same time, America (like any nation) has always had enemies in the form of nation states, political and religious movements, organized crime, and just plain wackos." --This was not always the case, especially on a global scale. America's actions over the past 100 years has fostered the creation of enemies. The worst of it is from Korea forward.

    "The scope of the problem is huge, nearly impossible. We expect our government to protect us from threats that can come in any of hundreds of millions of different directions. When one or two get by, we cry out loud and we express extreme anger -- not just at the bad guys, but at our government for letting it happen." --Why would we expect our government to protect us from something they created to begin with. This sound like Munchausen disease on a national scale (perhaps global).

    "Freedom vs. security. It's a challenge as old as the nation." --Too much freedom leads to events that warrant the need for more security.

    "The best way to prevent this is to find and arrest the perpetrators after they plot but before they kill. In the days of old, the way this was done was with plain ol' shoe leather: investigation. Ringing door bells. Getting search warrants. Sending thousands of agents out to search for one criminal." --The best way to prevent this is to not instigate the problem to begin with. Arrests just address the symptom of the problem.
  • There are communists at every level of the United States government.

    I can't imagine how this could end badly. I mean, why would a member of congress or law enforcement abuse his authority because he was insane, or partisan, or just plain dishonest? And while the FBI knew the names and addresses of the 9/11 people, and knew they were learning how to fly airplanes but not land them, and had been informed that these people should be at least monitored, if not detained, it was NOT incompetence on the part of the FBI that allowed 9/11 to happen. Not at all. They just needed more information.

    The plan was just too complex and diabolical to unravel. I mean, they bought tickets and they got on the planes. How could you possibly expect people that intend to hijack a plane to get on the plane? Not even Batman would have guessed hijackers would actually get on the plane.

    And let's face facts: Law enforcement are just like those incredibly attractive and intelligent people on CSI that always figure every plot out, and never let their petty personal agendas get in the way. There's no way you'd ever see, for example, some lunatic sheriff going after Mexicans because they aren't white enough. Nor would you ever see a pack of police officers beating the life out of someone that's already unconscious. Law enforcement doesn't beat defenseless people to death because they're homicidal maniacs. No, they do it to protect the rest of us from that unconscious guy. There are no Billy-Bobs or emotionally unstable people in law enforcement, no sir.

    And when law enforcement is accused of killing someone, and they say it's a lie, THEN find out there is actually video, they come to the only conclusion anyone could make: The video is taken out of context. If you play it backwards, you see the police actually help the dead guy up and send him on his way. What more did you want them to do?

    This is America! There is no way the government would ever just lie about 'weapons of mass destruction' to get us involved in a useless and expensive war. There is no way a member of congress could be so insane as to say the President of the United States is a Muslim terrorists that can't prove he was born on Earth if it wasn't true. That 'birth certificate' was actually a certificate of birth. They are COMPLETELY different, and we all know that. And there is no way any member of congress would say anything about the Death Camps Obama has going out west. No way.

    And there is absolutely no reason why we should let something like the Constitution get in our way of being afraid of the dark. The founders didn't even mean half of it. ALL men are equal? C'mon now, we all know what they meant. And when they said you can go about your business without anyone snooping in your affairs, they didn't mean if someone is scared about something bad happening. Random, baseless fear overrides freedom. I'm sure it's in there somewhere.

    Let's not forget that the only way to defend freedom is to completely destroy it. But hey, once you're locked in a cell trying to prove you're innocent of charges they won't explain to you (it's classified), you have no reason to fear people that may or may not exist.

    See? Problem solved!
  • It's not a paradox in the slightest

    We have means where with proper evidence, a warrant can be pretty darn easily gotten to monitor someone.

    Heck, in situations where police and national security agencies believe that there is 'imminent risk of bodily harm to citizens', they can justify the searches AFTER THE FACT.

    Add into this that 90% of search warrants applied for are given and you realize that search warrants are pretty much handed out like candy on the flimsiest of circumstances.
  • little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety -Benjamin Fran

    They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety. -Benjamin Franklin.

    As whistle blower William Binney pointed out in a recent interview on , even high ranking officials like David Petraeus and the US Army general can be ousted via soft coup d'etat s when they don't toe the line, thanks to this 360 degree view of everyone's lives.
  • 9/11 Could have been prevented with MORE Liberty

    The simple fact is, Americans have been told from birth, to bend, sway, and obey any time a bad guy attacks. Never, never resist we were told. That combined with the the fact the second amendment is apparently not in effect in an airplane, ensured the success of the terrorists. More Liberty = Less Crime!
  • David, I am a little surprised that you are not more concerned about this.

    You points are clear enough.

    One problem is that Snowden reported (presumably truthfully) that he had the "authority" to drill down well past phone numbers into actual call details. If true, that suggests that a low-level consultant, whether legal or not, has direct access to personal information without the consent of his superiors.

    The courts require "probable cause" in order to issue a search warrant. Even the FISA court must abide by this standard - and the Supreme Court has oversight responsibility for the FISA court.

    All of these issues were raised in the last months of the Bush (43) administration - when it was revealed that President Bush routinely bypassed the FISA court. Shame on him!

    Then, in 2008, just weeks before being sworn-in, then Senator Obama voted along with the majority of the Senate to make it illegal for a citizen to sue any company which cooperated with the Government in its "warrantless search" program. That action effectively quashed hundreds of lawsuits against the telcos. The government was making it clear to the telcos that, if they cooperated with the government, the government would "leave them alone". That's a powerful message.

    The deeper problem is that Supreme Court cannot rule on the Constitutionality of any law until a lawsuit makes its way through the lower courts. No lawsuits means no jurisdiction.

    We all saw the clip on TV of the head of the NSA telling Congress that the activities of no American Citizen were being monitored without a warrant. Clearly, if they know whom I am calling (or who called my number), and when, and what web sites I am visiting, then they are monitoring me without my consent, or the consent of the courts.

    This was taken to the next level when the Associated Press was monitored - violating not only the Fourth Amendment but the First Amendment as well.

    Now the government is hotly pursuing Snowden and, if he is captured, he will be prosecuted essentially for being a "whistle-blower" ... someone who is supposed to be protected by law.

    In the mean time, the only thing Congress is concerned about is whether or not they are being monitored. Whether or not Congress is above the law.

    I would feel a whole lot different about all of this if the Supreme Court had the opportunity to review the Patriot Act in detail and to judge if it violates the Bill of Rights (or any other part of the Constitution of the United States).

    For any administration to hide behind national security in order to keep the public from knowing the nature of government activity is for them to have free reign to violate the rights of any citizen of the United States on any grounds whatsoever.

    Benjamin Franklin said "Anyone who would give up their liberty in exchange for security deserves neither."
    M Wagner
  • Wanna buy some elephant repellent to go with your Homeland Security Dave?

    Dave, your arguments for the security state remind me a little too much of the old Elephant Repellent joke:

    #1: "You want to buy some elephant repellent?"
    #2: "But there are no elephants around here!"
    #1: "That just proves that it is working!"

    The fact of the matter is that there have ALWAYS been "bad guys" who mean to do others harm. There have ALWAYS been terrorists and terrorist activities. We have also seen MANY examples of what happens when a nation becomes paranoid of it's own citizens and the abuses the ensue. Does the KGB or the East German Stasi ring a bell? The fact of the matter is that we are not becoming a police state, we ARE a police state, and this latest scandal with the NSA is living proof of this.

    The government is NOT America. WE THE PEOPLE are America. The very foundation of our society was founded on a healthy mistrust of government. I personally would rather take my chances with liberty and a few bad guys running around than living in a constant state of government and media generated fear.
  • Comment 9088.4T_f3

    There is no surveilence of citizens, no Prism, no secret black helicopters on silent mode with telescopic heloiphones over most metropolitan areas recording half of all vocal conversations. There is no NSA or for that no CIA.

    All is well people.