The Security Trap

Author: Bill Cohn, J.D. 

Position: Attorney, Lecturer of law, ethics and critical thinking at UNYP

A colleague asked me not long ago, “What are the greatest challenges to security today?” Having thought about it for a few weeks now, here is my answer:


“Security” is an ambiguous term, which in public policy debate is used by those in power in self-serving ways. Protection from external enemies - the conventional use of security - demands secrecy and trust. Security is a trump card used to manufacture acquiescence and conformity, and to stifle dissent. It has been thus for the past thousand years as well as the past twelve and a half years.

My definition of security would include autonomy, privacy, free speech, food, shelter, healthcare and freedom from undue fear, as well as being defended against external physical harm. Thus, I conclude that the best way to achieve these objectives is by promoting and enforcing basic rule of law principles which are the bedrock of free and prosperous societies enabling optimal human liberty, security and development.

As I see it, the main challenges to security today are: a lack of fair competition in key sectors of society; ecological degradation abetted by a corrupt system of myopic incentives; the manner in which technology is being used in Orwellian ways; and the way in which the 9/11 attack has been used to create an endless war paradigm which still today hangs over us to peddle fear and paralyze skepticism, thus making us much less secure. Let’s consider each in turn.

Capitalism, for all its pitfalls, is the best economic system for achieving security, provided it abets meritocracy (if not, it is corrupt). Fair competition is the Holy Grail. Yet there is a remarkable lack of fair competition today in media, politics, finance, and technology. Media mergers and acquisitions activity is robust as ownership restrictions are eviscerated and the marketplace of ideas is warped by an alliance of new and old media moguls. If the true test of democracy is the ability of anyone to get elected to office, then a snapshot of the costs of elections today reveals that we have more a plutocracy. The bailout of banks and insurance companies deemed too-big-to-fail of course means that we now have less competition in global finance, and greater moral hazard. In technology the “network effect” makes competition all the harder to achieve, as the Internet is now dominated by Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple, each with their own virtual empires. Google’s ability to escape from the EU and US antitrust authorities so deftly and with so few consequences relative to Microsoft for its predatory practices raises the question “Is the fox now guarding the hen house?”

Relatedly, corruption has a heavy hand in making public policy dysfunctional in meeting the challenges of global warming. Seven years ago the world seemed united and determined to mitigate human carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions following the dire warnings of the 4th Assessment of the IPCC. Today, we are back to business as usual, as the Maldives and the Great Barrier Reef are being destroyed before our eyes. A political-economy of short-termism is crippling us from developing sustainable renewable energy sources. To be secure, this must change.

NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the extensive global spy system which hangs over us all, collecting information on all uses of digital communications. The challenges to security here are many: the murky alliance between the state and Silicon Valley, the apparent abdication of the government’s duty to law and the public, the loss of individual privacy and autonomy and its consequences, the way in which technology is being transformed to snuff out fundamental rights, and is arguably making law obsolete.

At the close of the February 19 Public Forum on NSA Spying I was struck by the divide between the panelists who supported NSA spying activities - based on the rationale that it seems to be working and that the highest duty of the state is to protect its people from attack – and those who question the conventional use of the term security and maintain that secrecy is generally antithetical to security. Clear definitions may be a good start for round two. I was also struck by the relationship between the First and Fourth Amendments of the US Constitution, feeling the surveillance state’s gravest harm to our security is its chilling effect on free speech - generally seen as the Holy Grail of democracy.

Finally, we confront the endless war paradigm and its effect on human security. Concerns about the surveillance state-security contractor-militarism complex, are lucidly expressed by James Madison who said: “Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germs of every other… In war too, the discretionary power of the executive is extended… and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual war.”

The challenges to achieving optimal security are daunting. Let us find inspiration in the lives and words of two people we lost in 2013. Aaron Swartz’ life ended tragically at age 26. He worked tirelessly to make technology and information work for, and not against, people. Bad laws like SOPA were stopped, Swartz said, because “Everyone was thinking of ways they could help, often really clever, ingenious ways…..Everyone saw it as their responsibility to help.” And Nelson Mandela, who died at age 95, lived a life that is testament to his wise words: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

The author lectures on law, ethics and critical thinking at the University of New York in Prague and is a visiting professor of jurisprudence at New York University.

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