The Paris Terrorist Attacks have once again galvanized the West against the Islamic State and the threat of globalized terrorism. Unlike in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the rhetoric recognizes the need to balance national security interests with civil liberties. The problem is that people do not seem to understand what this means while we are still lacking the basic conversation needed to determine what balance might look like.
Balance is needed, so we do not solve one problem by creating even more problems. For civil liberties advocates, balance means preventing national security overreach by establishing boundaries. For national security advocates, balance tends to mean removing barriers for investigators. Unfortunately, a superficial understanding of balance allows advocates to disarm valid criticism by simply saying there is a need to for balance without taking any meaningful steps to find an actual balance.
The world must always remember that the imminent threat of globalized terrorism is not the only national security concern. In terms of national and global security, Russian hostility continues to be a far greater threat to the US and Europe while Chinese aggression to be a threat to the US and Asia. Although some would like sanctions against Russia lifted, the Islamic State cannot be a distraction from the Ukraine Crisis as a domineering Russia represents a far greater long-term threat.
Furthermore, Silicon Valley has become somewhat of a symbol in the battle to balance national security interests and civil liberties. Not only does information technology provide a wealth of potential leads that can be used to help protect people from crimes like terrorism, national security warriors struggle to cope with potential threats that are made possible when technology empowers people for better or worse.
The internet is a safe haven that offers criminals many opportunities; however, preserving the internet from the tyranny of abusive powers does far more to empower the voiceless and unite the world as a global community for the common good.
People speak freely and honestly when they feel safe enough to express their true beliefs and thoughts without reprisal. The internet is one place where most people can express their true interests, which is necessary for democracy and society to thrive.
In places like Iran, China, and Russia, the internet is far less of a safe haven. When tech companies cooperate with these governments, the consequences can be deadly for their customers.
Just as tech companies should not simply hand over personal data and meta-data to these governments, they should not simply hand over this data to Western powers. After all, the potential for abuse is just as rampant in the Western national security apparatus.
Just as the world wants police on the streets to prevent crime, discourage wrongdoing, and arrest those who harm others, the same is needed on the worldwide web. Police intimidation, censorship, bullying, brutality, and other forms of abuse are not, however, acceptable in the real or cyber world. When something does go wrong, people need to know security officials will be there to stop crimes, but they do not need the police in their homes every minute of the day. This is, of course, analogous to the piracy on the web.
This means national security officials cannot be given open access to personal data and meta-data. Because there are also threats of corporate abuse and criminal theft, maintaining vests stores of data is also problematic. Forcing companies to provide decryption keys for encrypted files makes the problem even worse.
Meanwhile, information technology is valuable to investigators, because it enhances their ability to track potential threats and possibly acquire evidence from online activities. Because evidence is needed to prove people are actually plotting to commit a crime, versus simply exercising their freedom of speech by talking about criminal activities, old-fashion police work is still needed. The need to keep people safe from the government, corporate, and criminal abuse, therefore, outweighs the value of retaining massive stores of data for evidence.
On the other hand, it is important to remember National Security officials want access to data and meta-data, so they can look for patterns that reveal criminal plots. This requires analytical software and algorithms. It is, however, the tech companies that are the experts when it comes to developing software, not the cops and spies. Showing a little trust, National Security officials should reach out to tech firms and request they install a version of their analytical software.
Instead of allowing the CIA and NSA to blindly install spy programs onto their computers and servers, vetted representatives of these companies should be given the source code of analytical software that can solely identify patterns of suspicious activity, so these firms can more effectively report suspicious activities. Instead of infringing on the civil liberties of everyone, companies can help point investigators to potential national security risks.
The simple fact is that terrorism and other forms of violent crime will always exist. As such, people cannot perpetually live in fear as though we face an apocalyptic war. People must learn to live with the threat of terrorism as we do with other crimes by taking reasonable steps to safeguard ourselves against those who would do us harm.
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