Saturday, January 13, 2007

Schneier on Surveillance

Two from Bruce Schneier on widespread surveillance:

Why technology is fundamentally changing the balance between freedom and police power:

Years ago, surveillance meant trench-coated detectives following people down streets. It was laborious and expensive and was used only when there was reasonable suspicion of a crime. Modern surveillance is the policeman with a license-plate scanner, or even a remote license-plate scanner mounted on a traffic light and a policeman sitting at a computer in the station.

It's the same, but it's completely different. It's wholesale surveillance. And it disrupts the balance between the powers of the police and the rights of the people.


The effects of wholesale surveillance on privacy and civil liberties are profound; but, unfortunately, the debate often gets mischaracterized as a question about how much privacy we need to give up in order to be secure. This is wrong. It's obvious that we are all safer when the police can use all techniques at their disposal. What we need are corresponding mechanisms to prevent abuse and that don't place an unreasonable burden on the innocent.


Wholesale surveillance is not simply a more efficient way for the police to do what they've always done. It's a new police power, one made possible with today's technology and one that will be made easier with tomorrow's.

And why single vivid incidents can fool people into making bad judgements:

I'm in the middle of writing a long essay on the psychology of security. One of the things I'm writing about is the "availability heuristic," which basically says that the human brain tends to assess the frequency of a class of events based on how easy it is to bring an instance of that class to mind. It explains why people tend to be afraid of the risks that are discussed in the media, or why people are afraid to fly but not afraid to drive.

One of the effects of this heuristic is that people are more persuaded by a vivid example than they are by statistics. The latter might be more useful, but the former is easier to remember.


I can write essay after essay about the inefficacy of security cameras. I can talk about trade-offs, and the better ways to spend the money. I can cite statistics and experts and whatever I want. But -- used correctly -- stories like this one will do more to move public opinion than anything I can do.

Cognitive biases is something I've been meaning to write about for a long time, but for now I'll just point out that the number of Americans killed by terrorist actions since the 1960s is about the same as the number killed by accidents involving deer. Imagine Mad King George declaring a War on Deer.

On second thoughts, let's not give him any more ideas...

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