But Mr. President, there is no such thing as 100% security

Boston Marathon bombing aftermathThe last few weeks have seen a steady drip-drip-drip of scandals of various degrees of seriousness hit the Obama Administration. The most recent, and to my mind the most serious, is yesterday’s revelation by the Washington Post of a massive program run by the National Security Agency (NSA) that taps directly into data gathered on users of technology products and services from nine big tech companies. (Congratulations are due to reporters Barton Gellman and Laura Poitras for digging that story up — it is huge, and hugely important.)

I have a lot to say on this subject, but since that will take some time to write up I wanted to share a quick response I had to President Obama’s attempt today to defend the surveillance programs. In his remarks, he made this statement:

“It’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100% security and also then have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience,” Obama said.

It’s a troubling statement, because it misses an obvious fact: you can’t have 100% security no matter what you do. You can try to get close, but in a huge country with hundreds of millions of people, there’s no way you can intercept every single possible threat to everyone everytime. Probably the best you can hope for is to intercept 100% of the major ones, and as many of the smaller ones as you can.

This is not a theoretical point. Even with these programs up and running, we don’t have 100% security. The Tsarnaev brothers proved that. All that eavesdropping, all that surveillance, all those violations of our rights and liberties weren’t able to prevent two schmucks with some pressure cookers from killing three people and injuring hundreds more.

How much more surveillance — piled on top of all the surveillance we live with now — would it take to have a guarantee that they would have been caught?

There is just no thing as a perfect security system. It’s always a series of tradeoffs. And if your position is that any tradeoff that promises greater security at the cost of citizens’ rights will be decided in favor of security, you’re very quickly going to end up with a system that gives you massive violations of those rights without giving you the perfect security you were looking for.

Which appears to be the system we have now.


Ray Paseur

June 7, 2013
10:33 pm

I think Jefferson and you would seem to agree. Good, I am with you.

Now what?