Excessive Secrecy Boosts Terrorism and Crime

The entire law enforcement security apparatus of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada is guided by the principle that secrecy boosts security.

I beg to differ: the more open our security apparatus is, the more resilient it will be to terrorism and criminality.

This argument might seem counter-intuitive at first glance.  But a few examples should suffice to prove my point.

Take the news I read today: that the new high-tech British national ID cards are so poorly secured that it’s possible to clone them through the envelope in which they’re mailed.  Incredible.  And had the British government had a public competition to design the most secure identity document, with entrants judged by outside experts, it’s highly unlikely this would have been the result.

The infamous U.S. “no-fly” list is another example.  If your name appears on this list, you’re not allowed to fly.  Naturally, the composition of this list is classified as “secret” by the U.S. government.  You wouldn’t want terrorists to actually know their name is on a no-fly list, right?  Otherwise, they might not want to fly…

But isn’t that the goal: to keep terrorists off of airplanes?

A third example of how secrecy has resulted in greatly reduced security is in the U.S. telecommunications system.  In 1994, Congress passed a law requiring that secret “back doors” be built into all telephone equipment and networks to facilitate government surveillance.

Once again, implementation of the law and the technical standards for the “back doors” were for kept secret.  And, once again, the result was disastrous.  There’s increasing evidence that organized crime and foreign intelligence agencies have found these “secret” back doors and are utilizing them for their own purposes.

In a 1997 drug trafficking case in Los Angeles, a narcotics cartel targeted by the Drug Enforcement Administration was able to “completely compromise the communications of the FBI, the Secret Service, the DEA and the LAPD,” according to a secret government report leaked to the media.

A few years later, revelations emerged, but were quickly hushed up, that the White House telephone system had been completely compromised by an unnamed foreign intelligence service, widely believed to the Israeli Mossad.  (It turns out that Israeli companies allegedly tied to Mossad manufacture most of the wiretapping equipment used in the U.S. and many other countries.)

Naturally, these failures have led to…you guessed it, even MORE secrecy.  It turns out that an obscure agency called the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is secretly developing what it calls an “Authorization To Travel” system.

In this system, personal data about travelers would be shared universally, so that any law enforcement officer anywhere in the world could retrieve your lifetime travel history at the touch of a button.  Once this system is fully implemented, you would need permission to leave your own country.  This is a momentous change in the direction of a global police state… and it’s occurring without public debate and without meaningful feedback from experts about how the data in such a system can be secured from theft or misuse.

I could go on, but hopefully my point is clear: greater secrecy doesn’t lead to greater security.  All of these unintended results could have been avoided if the problem had been approached in a different way, open competition held and the best solution chosen by experts in their respective fields.

More fundamentally, if the politicians who came up with these harebrained schemes had bothered to inform the public of their implications, most of them would never have gotten off the drawing board.  Had your opinion been solicited in advance, would you have been in favor of a passport that criminals can clone while it’s still in the envelope?  How about a telephone network that the Mafia or foreign intelligence agencies can penetrate by pressing a few buttons?  Or a world where you have to ask, “Big Brother, may I?” to leave your own country.

Almost no one wants these things.  And that’s the point.  Excessive secrecy not only is bad for security, it’s bad for freedom.  Pass the word.

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