After the tragic events of September 11, the United States began building a domestic and foreign surveillance apparatus that far exceeds anything we have in Australia. Today, almost every phone call, SMS and internet request [in the US] runs through a National Security Agency system. The NSA obtains phone records from mobile companies, hacks into Google and Microsoft servers to obtain email, and even attaches bugs to the giant trans-Atlantic cables that carry the internet around the globe. You’d think that this mass surveillance program would have caught a large number of terrorists.
In reality, it has caught almost none.
A panel, personally appointed by President Obama, found the NSA’s mass surveillance was “not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional [court] orders”. In January, the New America Foundation analysed the legal proceedings of 225 Americans indicted or convicted of terrorist activity. They found that mass surveillance was only relevant to 1.8 per cent of these prosecutions – and even then, conventional, targeted intelligence methods could have produced the same results. The study’s results indicate the NSA’s domestic surveillance “has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism”, the Washington Post reported.
So if mass surveillance has been almost useless in defending the United States from terrorists, why are we bringing it to Australia? With our country’s terror alert recently raised to “high”, shouldn’t we be using intelligence practices that actually work? The evidence from the US is clear: indiscriminate surveillance of an entire country doesn’t work. Regular, targeted surveillance of suspicious individuals is the most effective way of stopping terrorism. Instead of throwing away millions of dollars – and priceless freedoms – on an expensive mass surveillance apparatus, why don’t we just increase police and traditional intelligence budgets?
The cost-benefit analysis for mass surveillance doesn’t look good. The government asked us to trade some freedom for national security. But really we are being asked to trade our freedom for what amounts to a souped-up Neighbourhood Watch sticker.