In the wake of the most recent terrorist attack I was put in mind of an old Greek myth.
Scylla and Charybdis were mythical sea monsters noted by Homer in the Odyssey. Scylla was a six-headed monster and Charybdis was a huge whirlpool. Odysseus was forced to navigate his ship near one or the other. He chose Scylla, hoping to lose only some of his crew rather than the whole ship.
In some ways the current international dilemma is similar to this age-old bind. We too must choose between evils, in this case between the loss of life and the loss of liberty.
The delicate balance between security and freedom is a well-worn issue in history and political science. What is new, however, is the way all elements of the equation have intensified over the last twenty years. If I may mix metaphors a bit, the horns of the dilemma have become exquisitely sharp.
Each year vastly more people die from auto accidents, for example, than from terrorist action. Nonetheless, the fear of suicide bombings and shootings--the fear itself--has become its own kind of monster. And this is understandable. Terrorists across the world, whether home grown or foreign born, and whatever their motivation, have honed the tactic of guerrilla action. They might work in coordination, but also frequently on their own. Their bombs can be constructed for pennies, and if bombs are not feasible then guns, or even automobiles, will do. Most importantly, their willingness to commit suicide makes approach to a target almost unstoppable.
But it is a related threat, embodied in the response of Western governments to terrorism, which I want to focus on in this brief essay.
The most effective prevention of terrorist acts flows not from military action, but rather from police action, broadly conceived. The monitoring of computer and cell phone traffic; camera surveillance and facial recognition software; explosives detection; DNA identification; encryption of vulnerable information; rapid sharing of data among agencies and governments; steady pressure on terrorist financial resources; detailed background searches; visible officer presence; weapon searches at strategic sites; and so on ad infinitum.
Police tactics may be our strongest defense, but these tactics themselves are more dangerous to us than they have ever been. And the reason for this involves a confluence of primarily two factors.
First of course is the strikingly accelerated curve of digital technology, and the corresponding, exponential increase of surveillance capacity. As the revelations of Edward Snowden in 2013 demonstrated, this capacity has not gone unused by the state. The true shock of this digital voyeurism is not so much its illegality. At this point there is little surprise in a government acting illegally. Rather, the shock is the sheer scope of the technical capacity. This is not your grandfather’s surveillance. Your grandfather never had to worry about being monitored at home by the built-in camera on his lap top.
Second, the power of this surveillance has been enormously potentiated by the enthusiastic, no the jubilant, participation of citizens themselves in the data gathering.
This is new. Digital technology offers irresistible temptations. Instant conversation: I’ll just text her. Immediate information: I’ll just search it. Convenient consumption: I click it, they ship it. And of course the pull of social media: recognition just feels so good. But with every click and key stroke, we enter personal information that can be, and is, stored and cross-referenced. What we believe. What we buy. What we read. What we have questions about. What’s happening in our lives.
The relentless commodification of this information, collected, analyzed, and sold to advertisers without our oversite, has opened a lucrative sector of profit for the tech companies. It has been described as "surveillance capitalism". But this domain has become more than just invasive profiteering.
As Snowden confirmed, and as many suspected, tech companies have continued the collusion with state intelligence agencies that first came to national attention nearly a decade ago. And so the boundary between surveillance capitalism on the one hand, and the surveillance state on the other, has become porous. Some would say nonexistent.
As the overlapping of private and public life has continued, we have come to live in digital fish bowls. We must not be surprised when the state peers in. The social forces fueling both Scylla and Charybdis are unlikely to subside in the foreseeable future. Terror will continue, and surveillance will expand. And expand.
This is a drift against which we must take a stand, draw an effective line. But my concern, and the concern of many others, is that we may have crossed a tipping point: we may have already lost the power to draw such a line.