Columnist Holman Jenkins of The Wall Street Journal shines some light on the prohibitive costs for the “high-tech pig-in-a-poke government meta-surveillance that isn’t working.
The Homeland Security Department has shied away from any such discipline, though it once suggested that a life saved from terrorism was worth twice as much as any other life, bizarrely based on the public’s exaggerated dread of terrorism. Even so, the Federal Air Marshal Service has been estimated to cost $180 million per life saved. Airport security—don’t ask. One British study estimated that security efforts would have to stop 30 attacks per year on the scale of the 2005 London transit bombing to justify Britain’s spending under normal metrics.
A basic problem is that terrorism is rare. Crime isn’t. An Urban Institute study two years ago found benefits of $1.50 to $4.30 for every $1 spent by Baltimore and Chicago on anti-crime cameras. These investments in security were a good deal precisely because a lot more people were available to be saved from a lot more threats. Maybe the best outcome, then, would be to take metadata surveillance away from the spooks and apply it more broadly and openly to regular law enforcement.
In the furor of the past few days, officials have pointed to the 2009 New York subway bombing plot as having been broken up by electronic surveillance. In Aurora, Colo., Afghan émigré Najibullah Zazi was observed sending emails to a Pakistan Internet address known to be used by an al Qaeda bomb expert.
By coincidence, Aurora, Colo., also happens to have been the home of James Eagan Holmes, who shot up a movie theater last year during a “Batman” screening, killing 12 and injuring 58. Holmes’s electronic traffic would have reflected the following pattern: failing his exams, withdrawing from graduate school, seeking psychiatric counseling, buying four weapons and a large amount of ammunition, ordering extra clips and a flak vest, applying to join a gun club whose proprietor found him disturbing.
Could meta-surveillance have alerted us to these activities? Did it? Did it have anything to say about the individual who last week shot up Santa Monica College? There’s an argument that big-data techniques would throw up too many false positives, but then that would be the case now, and taxpayers are buying a high-tech pig-in-a-poke.