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The world at ten

Like Meetup.org, net.wars-the-column is to some extent a child of 9/11 (the column was preceded by the book. four years of near-weekly news analysis pieces for the Daily Telegraph, and a sequel book, From Anarchy to Power: the Net Comes of Age). On November 2, 2011 the column will be ten years old, its creation sparked by a burst of frustrated anger when then foreign minister Jack Straw wagged a post-9/11 finger at those who had opposed his plans to restrict the use of strong encryption and implement key escrow in the mid 1990s when he was at the Home Office and blamed us.

Ten years on, we can revisit his claim. We now know, for example, that when Osama bin Laden wanted to hide, he didn't use cryptography to cloak his whereabouts. Instead, the reason his safe house stood out from those around it was that it was a technological black spot: "no phones, no broadband. In other words, bin Laden feared the power of technology as much as Straw and his cohorts: both feared it would empower their enemies. That paranoia was justified - but backfired spectacularly.

In our own case, it's clear that "the terrorists" have scored a substantial amount of victory. We - the US, the UK, Europe - would have had some kind of recession anyway, given the rapacious and unregulated behavior of banks and brokers leading up to 2008 - but we would have been much better placed to cope with it if we - the US - hadn't been simultaneously throwing $1.29 trillion at invading Iraq and Afghanistan. If you include medical and disability care for current and future veterans, according to the Eisenhower Research Project at Brown University that number rises to as much as $4 trillion.

But more than that, as Ryan Singel writes US-specifically at Wired, the West has built up a gigantic and expensive inward-turned surveillance infrastructure that is unlikely to be dismantled when or if the threat it was built to control goes away. In the last ten years, countless hundreds of millions of dollars and countless million of hours of lost productivity have been spent on airport security when, as Bruce Schneier frequently writes, the only two changes that have made a significant difference to air travel safety have been reinforcing the cockpit doors and teaching passengers to fight back. The Department of Homeland Security's budget for its 2011 financial year is $56.3 billion (PDF) - which includes $214.7 million for airport scanners and another $218.9 million for people to staff them (so much for automation).

The UK in particular has spent much of the last ten years building the database state, creating dozens of large databases aimed at tracking various portions of society through various parts of their lives. Some of this has been dismantled by the coalition, but not all. The most visible part of the ID card is gone - but the key element was always the database of the nation's residents, and as data-sharing between government departments becomes ever easier, the equivalent may be built in practice rather than by explicit plan. In every Western country CCTV cameras are proliferating, as are surveillance-by-design policies such as data retention, built-in wiretapping, and widespread filtering. Every time a new system is built - the London congestion charge, for example, or the mooted smart road pricing systems - there are choices that would allow privacy to be built in. And so far, each time those choices are not taken.

But if the policies aimed at our ourselves are misguided, as net.wars has frequently argued, the same is true of the policies we have directed at others. As part of the British Science Festival, Paul Rogers, a researcher with the Oxford Group, presented A War Gone Badly Wrong - The War on Terror Ten Years On, looking back at the aftermath of the attacks rather than the attacks themselves; the Brown research shows that in the various post-9/11 military actions 80 people have died for every 9/11 victim. Like millions of others who were ignored, the Oxford Research Group opposed the war at the time.

"The whole approach was a mistake." he told the press last Friday, arguing that the US should instead have called it an act of international criminality and sworn to work with everyone to bring the criminals to justice. "The US would have had worldwide support for that kind of action that it did not have for Afghanistan - or, especially, Iraq." He added, "If they had treated al-Qaeda as a common, bitter, vicious criminal movement, not a brave, religious movement worthy of fighting, that degrades it."

What he hopes his research will lead to now is "a really serious understanding of what wrong, and the risks of early recourse to early military responses." And, he added, "sustainable security" that focuses on conflict prevention. "Why it's important to look at the experience of the war on terror is to discern and learn those lessons."

They say that a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged. By analogy, it seems that a surveillance state is a democracy that's been attacked.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.


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