How New Digital Technology Encourages Terrorism and Threatens Democracy
There was a time when surveillance and security concerns did not trample on the rights of individuals or democratic principles because the entire matter was too difficult and cumbersome. In the old days when the threat was only ideological (e.g. communism) security issues were far less immediate and gathering information was a slow and lumbering process. But now there is a marriage of violence and digital technology. It is no accident that the correlation between terrorism and media presence and sophistication is strong and positive. As digital technology has advanced, along with the ease and availability of violence, so has terrorist activity and the technology and security requirements necessary to control it.
The threat to individual rights and democratic processes is always easy to defend when faced with rank violence. Of course we cannot let extremist ideologies and easy violent behavior dictates the political environment. But digital technology allows nonstate actors as well as other participants to engage in violence with ease by historical standards. Again, during the relatively simple period of security issues during the Cold War if an individual were a potential threat to the United States he could be detained or we could even enlist the help of others and subject the individual to legal processes. In the modern digital age the means and techniques of interrogating individuals and gathering information are less compatible with legal principles and offer more options – some of them unpleasant and questionable legally and morally.
In the Cold War if we wanted to learn secrets about somebody someone could be assigned to “tail them” and see what they could learn. This was slow, unreliable, and not a very productive use of resources. It was impossible to have enough people assigned to potential sources of information. Searching your person or your property required legal permission. New digital media can gather vast amounts of information from your cell phone, websites, credit card purchases, etc. The state has the legal right to gather information from organizations and it can all be done by a few people in a single place. Moreover, all of the electronic data about you is potentially more informative and revealing than any information obtainable from a coworker or close friend. Purely human information is fallible; people are not paying attention to what you’re doing, or you forget what you did at a certain time and place. But your cell phone and computer don’t forget. It’s all there in simple searchable form.
In the Cold War there was no technology available for massive data-gathering like collecting phone messages from entire communities. Today, the technology is available along with the software sophistication for massive meta-data collection. In fact, Facebook does the equivalent every day.
The security issues in the modern era are serious because of the easy availability of violence and technology. The security sector of the state measures itself by its ability to prevent incidents and is thus motivated to do more and more, regardless of how far the edges of acceptability are pushed, to ensure that there are no more 9/11s. These conditions threaten our democracy as they push the pendulum more towards the security side of the continuum. Still, surveillance and security are part of any state and targeting an opponent of the state capable of violence is legitimate.
Practical limits and approval from proper chains of authority are the only answer to maintain the balance between security and democracy. But new challenges and interesting questions still are on the horizon. Google and Apple, for example, are planning on encryption devices in new versions of cell phones. Security forces are legitimately concerned that this will make important information even more difficult to obtain. But such devices will strike a blow for privacy and individual rights while maintaining the tension between security and democracy.