Post 9/11 Security Measures: Beware of “Security vs. Privacy” falacy

Post-9/11 security is back in the news with the government’s annoucement that it is testing its new CAPPS II passenger screening system.

The controversial system has received harsh criticism from Congress and privacy advocates who say it is too invasive and threatens civil liberties.

As with most of the government responses to the September 11 attacks, this has turned into another debate over Homeland Security versus Privacy and Civil Liberty.

I am a strong supporter of privacy and I’m grateful that organizations are taking a stand against further erosion of our freedoms. However, I’m concerned that other, equally important, questions are getting lost in the noise.

Defining the debate as “freedom versus security” circumvents the question of whether the various proposals, in fact, improve security. Where is the evidence for this assumption that any of these measures can help ensure security?

With all the new security measures introduced since 9/11, including the Patriot Act, where is the analysis of their effectiveness? We debate their impact on privacy, but who asks whether they will have any impact toward reducing the risks of terrorist attacks, their stated purpose?

Almost two years after the attacks, many experts still list securing the cockpit doors on commercial planes as the single most effective measure implemented to date. The vast majority of airline travel security measures are simply cosmetic changes that do little more than add unnecessary inconvenience for passengers and waste fantastic sums of money.

Beyond the basic question of whether a given security measure has any positive effect at all, is the question of whether it does so in a cost effective manner. Locking the cockpit doors was probably one of the least expensive ideas to date, with absolutely no cost to freedom or privacy. It is tempting to simply throw money at the problem and that is essentially what the government has done, in a mostly haphazard fashion, without a strategy. However, despite the initial reaction, ultimately budget dollars are, and will continue to be, scarce. Inevitably, choices have to be made.

So instead of asking whether a given government proposal threatens our privacy, we must first ask whether it improves security, and at what cost.