The Surveillance State Is Not Just A Violation; It Is Unsafe

So, at first, we heard speculations and excuses about how and why Tamerlan Tsarnaev was able to go to Russia and back without raising more suspicion on the part of the FBI. Now we have yet another version of what happened:

”The accounts of how closely the Boston bombing suspect, who was killed in a police shootout last week, was followed are sure to raise questions at a closed hearing set for this afternoon on Capitol Hill. The Senate Intelligence Committee has summoned the FBI to explain why that 2012 trip didn’t raise alarm, considering the FBI had already looked into his background at the request of the Russian government. Napolitano addressed the matter during a hearing on immigration legislation before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Napolitano said “the system pinged when he was leaving the United States” for Russia in early 2012. But she noted: ‘By the time he returned, all investigations — the matter had been closed.’ Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., challenged Napolitano, saying the FBI told him they had no knowledge of the trip. Graham had earlier claimed that the suspect’s name was apparently misspelled when he traveled, so it never went into the system. Another lawmaker suggested he could have traveled under an alias.  It is possible, though, that Tsarnaev ‘pinged’ in a system known as the TIDE database. This is a vast repository of more than 500,000 names that have come up throughout various investigations and elsewhere. The actual terror watchlists are subgroups of names from the TIDE database, but Tsarnaev apparently was not on one of those lists.”

To what extent Napolitano or the Fox News story is giving us accurate information will come out in time. But, if this story is plausible, it is plausible because it points out something basic about the problems that develop when the state tries to know everything.

The state is not omniscient for the same reason that no human being is omniscient. It has limited knowledge, limited ability to process information, and limited resources. No matter how many agents it uses to gather and filter data, each new person is another potential liability. No matter how many cameras, microphones, or spy drones it uses, each new source of information drowns out others. No matter how man emails, private databases, or phone messages it hacks into, each new act of spying means that all the others have to receive less attention.

By watching everyone in general, the resources of the state get stretched so thin that they end up not seeing the real threats. We hear about warrantless wiretaps and the need for spy drones overhead and the NSA keeping a massive database of virtually everything on the internet. All that does is multiply noise. It would be much safer for all of us, as well as honor the Bill of Rights and our privacy, if, instead of trying to watch all of us all the time, the state watched key points—like who flies to areas of Russia that are known as a hot bed of radicalism as well as organized crime.

The state needs to decide if it wants to protect us or simply wants to watch and intimidate us.