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Overreact to Security Fears

Bruce Schneier has a thoughtful and provocative post about how our overreactions to terrorism are exactly what the terrorists want:

The point of terrorism is to cause terror, sometimes to further a political goal and sometimes out of sheer hatred. The people terrorists kill are not the targets; they are collateral damage. And blowing up planes, trains, markets or buses is not the goal; those are just tactics. The real targets of terrorism are the rest of us: the billions of us who are not killed but are terrorized because of the killing. The real point of terrorism is not the act itself, but our reaction to the act.

And we’re doing exactly what the terrorists want. . . .

Regardless of the threat, from the would-be bombers’ perspective, the explosives and planes were merely tactics. Their goal was to cause terror, and in that they’ve succeeded.

Imagine for a moment what would have happened if they had blown up 10 planes. There would be canceled flights, chaos at airports, bans on carry-on luggage, world leaders talking tough new security measures, political posturing and all sorts of false alarms as jittery people panicked. To a lesser degree, that’s basically what’s happening right now.

Our politicians help the terrorists every time they use fear as a campaign tactic. The press helps every time it writes scare stories about the plot and the threat. And if we’re terrified, and we share that fear, we help. All of these actions intensify and repeat the terrorists’ actions, and increase the effects of their terror. . . .

The surest defense against terrorism is to refuse to be terrorized. Our job is to recognize that terrorism is just one of the risks we face, and not a particularly common one at that. And our job is to fight those politicians who use fear as an excuse to take away our liberties and promote security theater that wastes money and doesn’t make us any safer.

I very much agree. As I’ve argued before, when looking at the big picture, terrorism actually accounts for a very small risk of death or injury. More people die each year of nutritional deficiences than terrorism. The number injured and killed in car accidents each year is over 10 times greater than the toll in 9/11. Likewise for the number who die of the flu each year. Terrorism is certainly a risk, and we should certainly try to prevent it, but we should inflate the risk out of proportion. I’ve likened it to the shark bite phenomenon — when very rare events like shark bites occur, they grab the headlines, and people have a dramatically inflated perception of the risk.

Many security measures strike me as a silly waste of money and resources that could be used in ways that will save more lives, be more beneficial for society, and even provide more effective security. Security measures such as the NYC subway searches cost oodles of money and time and tie up personnel that could be used more productively elsewhere.

The difficult question is how, exactly, we can heed Schneier’s advice. Terrorism is so effective at grabbing the headlines, and it’s hard to convince those in a panic to calm down. And for politicians, it is difficult not to trot out whatever security measures that can be conceived of, regardless of their financial costs, sacrificies in liberties, and even effectiveness so long as they appear to be doing something. I wish I could figure out a structural answer to the problem, but thus far, I have not had much luck.

Originally Posted at Concurring Opinions

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This post was authored by Professor Daniel J. Solove, who through TeachPrivacy develops computer-based privacy training, data security training, HIPAA training, and many other forms of awareness training on privacy and security topics. Professor Solove also posts at his blog at LinkedIn. His blog has more than 1 million followers.

Professor Solove is the organizer, along with Paul Schwartz, of the Privacy + Security Forum and International Privacy + Security Forum, annual events designed for seasoned professionals.

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