The world has changed dramatically since Sept. 11, 2001. “Our government failed us,” my distraught colleague wailed minutes after a plane hit the second of the Twin Towers on that tragic morning. Seeing firsthand the smoke from the Pentagon as the devastation of that day unfolded, I realized she was right. We should have seen an attack of this scale coming, yet somehow it was allowed to happen.
In the months and years that followed, President George W. Bush declared correctly that the ensuing war on terrorism would require perseverance. As he said at the Army War College in 2004, “We will persevere and defeat this enemy and hold this hard won ground for the realm of liberty.”More than perseverance, the war on terror required information. Bush used his wartime powers to retrieve information we needed to defeat terrorists.
While we debated the morality of the Afghan and Iraq wars, our government was harvesting massive amounts of data. Some of the information was publicly available in social media; some came through confidential subpoenas to telephone companies. President Bush and Congress gave our agencies new powers and high-tech tools to fight the war. And President Obama has continued to use data and technology as a tool in safeguarding America. From unmanned drones in the Middle East to investigating records of phone conversations made to overseas contacts, our government is using information to make sure American never again suffers an attack on the scale of Sept. 11.
Has it made a difference? It’s hard to prove a negative, but there have been no more attacks on American soil of that magnitude. Granted, we have seen a horrific array of crazed individual gunmen in recent years, and the Boston Marathon bombers caused pain and were arguably even preventable; but the long list of terrorists killed by drones and the relative domestic safety of the last 12 years lead me to think our leaders are doing something right.
What does this mean for our privacy? Can and should the federal government have the right to mine phone records for contacts with suspected terrorists? Is this a return to the horror of McCarthyism, which destroyed lives and careers for those accused of affiliating with Communists? Or is it relatively harmless – and an absolute necessary?
The world has changed. Evil people want to wreak havoc on innocents and kill Americans. At some point we must be willing to trade a comparatively small portion of our privacy in the name of safety. President Obama framed the issues well in his June 5 response saying, “You can’t have 100-percent security and also have 100-percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”
Concerns about privacy are real and they do arise with many new technologies. Yesterday it was car-tracking and cameras allowing identification of terrorists. Today it is text messages and in-room security cameras. Yet, somehow, allowing the government to review telephone data records seems a lot less intrusive when up against the potential devastating harm of terrorism.
According to Obama and other administration officials, the government is not reviewing the Internet use and emails of American citizens living in the U.S. Reports about the program do not seem to suggest that the National Security Agency or other agencies can actually listen to the content of phone calls, at least not without getting a judge’s permission first. Most Americans take these assurances at face value and don’t believe it’s harming Americans, according to recent polls showing that 56 percent of Americans support the program.
Credit card companies use algorithms to identify potential fraud; doctors sift through data for effective treatments; and marketers and politicians search data banks for customers and voters. We allow these things because of the benefits obtained – financial security, better health, more informed voting. In the same way, government should be able to use technology and data to find links to terrorists. Our safety depends on it.
Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)®, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and author of the New York Times best-selling books Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World's Most Successful Businesses and The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream. His views are his own. Connect with him on Twitter: @GaryShapiro.