Gene Healy on the Real Costs of Homeland Security Creep

Gene Healy highlights some of the more egregious findings from a new report from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) on domestic security expenditures before pivoting to a broader argument:

Sno-cone machines and “zombie apocalypse” parties aren’t the worst things DHS is underwriting. We ought to worry more about the proliferation of surveillance cameras, mobile biometric scanners, armored personnel carriers and police drones.

The proliferation of surveillance is driven by the same Moore’s Law and Metcalfe’s Law dynamics that are transforming the larger economy, yet it has been greatly accelerated by the demands of war-fighting:

Governments’ war needs often spur technological innovation, and our decade-plus global War on Terror is no exception. The Wall Street Journal reports that dozens of law enforcement agencies across the country are keenly interested in mobile facial- and iris-recognition technology developed for use in Iraq and Afghanistan. It can be used from an officer’s iPhone; there’s an app for that — and maybe a DHS grant as well.

One way to think about the deployment of these technologies is that they dramatically lower the cost of privacy intrusions. Just a few years ago, tracking a mobile telecommunications device was a fairly labor-intensive undertaking. Now, however, the process has been largely automated, and the leading telecom providers offer “all-you-can-eat” pricing to law enforcement personnel. Not surprisingly, this technology is used far more frequently than it had been in the past.

Healy’s column brings to mind a recent controversy Don Reisinger has covered for MIT Technology Review:

In a recent interview with Russia Times (RT), a former National Security Agency code breaker William Binney threw some more gas on the fire by saying that the U.S. government is currently in possession of all e-mails sent between citizens, and houses them for use at a later time.

“The FBI has access to the data collected, which is basically the emails of virtually everybody in the country,” Binney said in the interview. “And the FBI has access to it. All the congressional members are on the surveillance too, no one is excluded.”

Binney went on to explain that without a warrant, the U.S. government is tapping into e-mail programs and storing all messages sent across the country. The information isn’t necessarily being filtered, but can be used in the event a person is being “targeted.”

“If they become a target for whatever reason – they are targeted by the government – the government can go in, or the FBI, or other agencies of the government, they can go into their database, pull all that data collected on them over the years, and we analyze it all,” Binney said. “So, we have to actively analyze everything they’ve done for the last 10 years at least.”

NSA chief General Keith Alexander is dismissive of Binney’s claims, insisting that the intelligence bureaucracy doesn’t have the authorization, let alone the means, to cast such a wide net. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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