Big Brother is watching — but is he paying attention?
Have you ever noticed whenever a nationally significant tragedy occurs, such as 9/11 or a school shooting or a sniper in a Las Vegas hotel, a trail of clues is later discovered? They were there all along, scattered about like road flares warning everyone ahead of time. The flares were in plain sight, but they went unheeded.
Congress began its new term worshipping at the altar of party politics holding a kind of impeachment trial to remove from office someone the American people removed months before. But while presenting evidence, the House managers revealed that there were all kinds of warning signs something bad was going to happen at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Why then, you may wonder, was the Capitol so unprepared?
The answer is complex. It would be unfair to accuse the law enforcement and intelligence communities of missing all obvious threats. Many plots and conspiracies, both foreign and domestic, are stopped each year before doing damage. Yet, violent events that do occur often yield missed warning signs that should have been noticed.
9/11 prompted a massive government effort to share intelligence across an incredibly stove-piped executive branch and a country with 50 state governments. So-called “fusion” centers were created expressly to evaluate indicators of danger and task forces were formed to investigate them. All of this was good, but another dynamic emerged that was completely foreseen.
On 9/11, just 20 years ago, no one in the world had a smartphone and no one had a Facebook page or Twitter account. In the past two decades, Americans have digitized their lives and shoved much of it onto the internet. Smartphones became beacons that reveal where you are, what you’re doing or buying, and what you’re seeing. Social media platforms emerged to publicly document a lot of what we do every day. In short, the amount of publicly available data exploded.
The law enforcement and intelligence communities once craved information. Now they’re drowning in it. There is an uneasy awareness that many threats are hiding in plain sight. A Facebook ranting by a disturbed teen angry at being bullied; a tweet fantasizing about dead politicians; internet chat rooms organizing street actions with violently charged language; racist, hate-filled comments that follow nearly every article on a news website.
In hindsight, after some terrible event, everything seems glaringly obvious. Beforehand it is a dot in a Pacific Ocean of dots dancing along the always difficult line between protected speech and investigation-worthy threat.
Because Americans have voluntarily made public so much of their lives, technology has emerged to exploit all of the resulting data that is left in the wake. Many of these tools are oriented toward better marketing of goods and services through precision advertising to which we’ve all grown accustomed. If you’re going to browse and buy on the internet, you’re going to be targeted with ads the algorithms think you’d be interested in.
But that same behavior-oriented technology is also being marketed to public safety agencies to help spot bad guys. And they are very powerful tools — life-saving, in fact. They help the law enforcement and intelligence communities, who are drowning in this ocean of data, spot the dangerous sharks that deserve undivided attention.
However, these powerful tools also make privacy advocates quite nervous. And that, normally, is a good thing. The tension between government authority and individual rights to privacy is a tradition created by the Founders and rooted in the Constitution. It is a tension that deserves to be honored and fostered. The key is a balance that protects the innocent while exposing bad actors to justice.
Achieving balance is harder than it seems. Sometimes the privacy advocacy side appears overwrought. Twitter outright bans use of its data by law enforcement — but not advertisers — and the battles over Apple’s refusal to assist law enforcement with access to devices used by terrorists is well documented.
The frustration becomes acute when major tech and social media companies seem to apply more lenient standards of cooperation with authorities in privacy-hostile China simply because it is a lucrative market.
In addition, it does not help the privacy community’s credibility when it displays different tolerances for governmental aggressiveness in this country depending on which ideological ox is being gored. The downside of all of this is a chilling effect that makes investigative agencies inordinately hesitant to leverage new tools.
On the other hand, the abuse of the FBI by rogue top officials who initiated an unfounded, politically biased investigation and then intentionally corrupted evidence and lied to a court in order to use technological tools against an innocent U.S. citizen, demonstrates the constant need for wariness and healthy boundaries that protect privacy.
We find ourselves in a situation where technology is enabling marvelous new ways to spot and interdict bad things before they happen or, at minimum, quickly resolve terrible events so that damage is contained and curtailed. We should not automatically constrain the use of new tools out of an unrealistic fear that somehow all Americans will be subject to massive government surveillance. Law enforcement does not have the resources to meet even the most basic threats that exist, let alone an imagined luxury of watching everyone’s daily business.
And that’s why the new tools are important — they help narrow down focus on those bad actors Big Brother truly needs to watch. Truth be told, our current law enforcement infrastructure is not mature enough to fully exploit new technology that holds the possibility of stemming serious violent crime. There’s work to be done before we can answer the question, “How did we miss the obvious road flares?”
However, there is great promise that we can materially improve the effectiveness of law enforcement and increase our personal safety in this country, particularly if a partnership of transparency is created with privacy advocates to ensure the awesome powers of emerging technology are kept out of the hands of the politically motivated and always trained solely on those who would do harm to the rest of us.
Kevin R. Brock, former assistant director of intelligence for the FBI, was an FBI special agent for 24 years and principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He independently consults with private companies and public-safety agencies on strategic mission technologies.