Is the NSA actually making us worse at fighting terrorism?

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The head of the British electronic spy agency GCHQ, Robert Hannigan, created a minor flap last week in an article he wrote for the Financial Times. In effect, Hannigan argued that more robust encryption procedures by private Internet companies were unwittingly aiding terrorists such as the Islamic State (IS) or al-Qaida, by making it harder for organizations like the NSA and GCHQ to monitor online traffic. The implication was clear: The more that our personal privacy is respected and protected, the greater the danger we will face from evildoers.

It’s a serious issue, and democracies that want to respect individual privacy while simultaneously keeping citizens safe are going to have to do a much better job of reassuring us that vast and (mostly) secret surveillance capabilities overseen by unelected officials such as Hannigan won’t be abused. I tend to favor the privacy side of the argument, both because personal freedoms are hard to get back once lost, but also because there’s not much evidence that these surveillance activities are making us significantly safer. They seem to be able to help us track some terrorist leaders, but there’s a lively debate among scholars over whether tracking and killing these guys is an effective strategy.

The fear of being tracked also forces terrorist organizations to adopt less efficient communications procedures, but it doesn’t seem to prevent..

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