06 March 2014

Does the terrorist threat justify the snooping? Not according to the stats

British Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking about the need for mass surveillance of communications, talked about keeping concerns about civil liberties "in proportion." Perhaps what should be kept in proportion is his enthusiasm for mass snooping. Mr. Cameron and other national leaders justify their obsession about security and its attendant secrecy on the terrorist threat. But how much of a threat is terrorism?

In Mr. Cameron's Great Britain, since "the world changed" in 9/11 terrorists have killed less than 60 people. Every one of those deaths is a tragedy, of course, but on a national scale the number is trivial, about five deaths per year. This is roughly equal to the number of Brits who die annually from bee stings.

The numbers in the U.S. are hardly more disturbing. Since 2000, deaths from homeland terrorism average out at 235 per year, including of course the World Trade Center bombing. Again, for a nation of 314 million people, that is a minor threat. Twice that many Americans die every year from falling out of bed.

The only death in Canada from terrorism over the same period was the man killed by the anglophone Quebecer who attempted to assassinate Parti Québécois leader Pauline Maurois on election night.

Terror attacks present great drama and therefore attract enormous media attention, rather more than bee stings or falling out of bed even though they hold no greater threat to the average citizen. And politicians dread attacks because they make them look weak, which of course is often the point, and politicians fear little more than looking weak.

As a result, Britain, the U.S. and Canada have invested massively in and given unprecedented powers to security institutions including surveillance agencies such as Britain's GCHQ, the Americans' NSA and our very own CSEC. This year, CSEC's budget was increased from $444-million to $829-million, including part payment for its new headquarters. The lavish new building, estimated to ultimately cost $1.2-billion, has been aptly described as a spy palace.

Terrorism has been long with us and will no doubt be with us for much longer. Reasonable precautions are justified, but let's stop using a minor threat to justify major surveillance, to say nothing of extravagant expenditure.

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