Here’s the Thing: Surveillance Laws Don’t Reduce The T-T-T-Terrorisms

Originally published at TheVine, 5 November 2014. 

Are our new anti-terror laws necessary in order to protect us? Not if the US experience is any guide.


Making loud noises about domestic security is a sure-fire way for a government to look all strong and resolute and leadery, especially if they’re – just for the sake of argument – still attempting to pass a budget six months down the track.

However, here’s a complete list of all the domestic Islamic terror plots successfully carried out on Australian soil prior to the new security laws being passed: zero.

The closest we’ve come is the Bali bombings which, while tragic, were not in Australia. And even if you travel to less secure locales on this exciting planet of ours, your risk of being affected by terrorist activity remains much where it’s been for the last two decades: utterly infinitesimal.

We’re terrible at noticing that, though.

That people are just straight up lousy at calculating risk can be gleaned by the fact people are terrified of Ebola – a disease which is not in this country and is zero risk to anyone not actively working among the stricken – and yet so blasé about measles that they’re not immunising their own damn children against a genuine, potentially deadly and entirely preventable disease.

But measles isn’t sexy, and Ebola is. And saying “honestly, you’re fine” isn’t nearly as exciting as “you’re right, you’re under perpetual threat: that’s why we need to know your phone and internet records.”

Indeed, in the briefing notes given to the government by the federal police included the bold claim that “metadata is central to virtually every counter-terrorism, organised crime, counter-espionage and cyber security investigation.”

Here’s the thing, though: it’s absolutely not.

To demonstrate this is the case, let’s have a little look-see at the experience in the United States.

After the World Trade Centre attacks in 2001 the Bush administration introduced the Patriot Act which, hilariously, is a backronym (the full title is “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001″.)

Aside from have the most ridiculous title imaginable, said Act gave the government sweeping powers over American citizens and non-citizens alike, including the warrantless gathering of metadata.

The argument at the time is that it was absolutely necessary in order to track and capture terrorists on US soil. And it’s still going: collection of said data is thought to be the work of the gigantic Intelligence Community Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative Data Center, a massive data facility built last year at Camp Williams, about 40km out of Salt Lake City, Utah.

In fact, those powers have since been expanded: there was a ruling last year by the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court – yep, that’s a thing you didn’t know existed – which removed the need to actually show that information collected or analysed needed to have anything to do with an investigation.

FISC Judge Clair Eagan wrote that the National Security Agency “requires neither ‘specific and articulable facts’ nor does it require that the information be material. Rather it merely requires a statement of facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the records sought are relevant to the investigation.”

So, how many terrorists has unfettered access to thirteen years of metadata caught?

The answer may surprise you: it’s one. And calling that person a “terrorist” is perhaps a little misleading.

That person is one Basaaly Moalin, a cab driver from San Diego. Access to his phone records allowed the FBI to successfully prosecute him for donating a total of $US8,500 in several transactions during 2007 and 2008 to al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliated group in Somalia.

This information comes from the New America Foundation, a non-partisan non-profit public policy organisation based in Washington DC. Their analysis of the records of 225 people charged with terrorism-related offences revealed that “that traditional investigative methods, such as the use of informants, tips from local communities, and targeted intelligence operations, provided the initial impetus for investigations in the majority of cases, while the contribution of NSA’s bulk surveillance programs to these cases was minimal.”

When they say “minimal”, they mean minimal: phone records were part of 1.8 per cent of investigations of US citizens, and 4.8 per cent of non-US persons.

Even in the Moalin case the phone data didn’t immediately cause the authorities to leap into action: the FBI waited two months between linking him to a number in Somalia and beginning their investigation. And while sending finances to a Somalian terror group is illegal – and also terrible, let’s be clear – it’s not exactly 9/11 Part Two.

Indeed, the authors conclude that “Surveillance of American phone metadata has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism and only the most marginal of impacts on preventing terrorist-related activity, such as fundraising for a terrorist group”.

Possibly not worth a staggeringly expensive decade-plus international programme of surveillance and analysis, in other words.

In Australia we’ve had some big showy events to remind us that we’re all at risk all the time.

And if you dispute the use of “showy”, please note that typically police don’t invite the media to join them when they’re sending 800 police to raid a number of properties in Sydney and Queensland, at least not unless they’re confident that there’s not going to be any sort of risk involved. And the result? Two arrests, and the confiscation of a plastic ceremonial sword, which was hung on a wall.

Also, just to be clear: the people yelling about ISIL on the internet and firing pellet guns at Muslim clerics are not actually, y’know, in ISIL.

They’re angry dickbags who feel powerless and are ready to take it out on whoever gets in their way – not helped by the sharp rise in Islamophobia that’s happened in recent times. If you’re already feeling pushed around, having politicians declare you’re un-Australian and people spit on your mum when she’s on a bus is hardly going to calm you down.

Thus if you’re a proud Australian with a Facebook avatar reading “STRAYA: LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT” then congratulations, dipshit: you’re doing a great job endangering the nation you ostensibly care about. You’re the problem, not the folks in the mosque.

The international experience has suggested that the best – actually, the only – defence against angry loners is the people around those angry loners. Those are the parents and siblings and colleagues who can either take said loner aside and say “listen, this isn’t like you” or, if they think the situation is escalating beyond their ability to help, contact the authorities.

Concerned citizens informing the police is pretty much how every plot has ever been uncovered, in Australia and everywhere else. So can you see a potential issue with sidelining one entire section of the community off as being “other”?

So, if you genuinely want Australia to be safe and you’re not just using “security” as a replacement for “I fear brown people”, then you have a duty to make everyone feel that Australia is home and therefore that everyone has a stake in helping protect the place.

You also get the bonus of, y’know, not being a racist dickbag. That’s pretty great for everyone too.

I say this a lot – A LOT – but it’s a sentiment that apparently needs repeating:

There is no Us-And-Them. There’s not even any Them. There is only Us.

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