News Release

Problems with Surveillance and Profiling


Author of the book Illusions of Security: Global surveillance and democracy in the post-9/11 world, Webb said today: “The pervasive surveillance systems that have been implemented since 9/11 have pernicious effects on the democratic freedoms of ordinary people and, as this [Times Square] case underlines, only limited utility in fighting real terrorists. Tragedy in Times Square was averted not by the 82 cameras monitoring the streets in the area, but by an alert citizen who called the police and got the bomb squad there. The break in the case came, not from some futuristic data mining program, but through old-fashioned police work. Had an old-fashioned all-points alert been relied on to close the borders to the suspect, it might have worked better than the no-fly system with its swollen list, said to contain at various times between 44,000 and 1,000,000 names. Before 9/11, the FBI’s ‘no transport’ list was limited to persons who ‘presented a specific known or suspected threat to aviation.’ It was much shorter and, no doubt, easier to administer in an urgent situation.”

Executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, Buttar calls profiling “ineffective” and “counterproductive.” He said today: “As demonstrated by the December underwear bomber [Nigerian national Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab], profiling inevitably overlooks potential threats. … Moreover, profiling alienates communities within the U.S. from which officials fear radicalization. …. Finally, our Constitution permits scrutiny only when based on individualized suspicion, which profiling undermines by criminalizing constitutionally-protected rights of association and religious practice.

“Like profiling, surveillance is demonstrably ineffective and even counterproductive, as well as constitutionally offensive. First, surveillance doesn’t work. Numerous CCTV [closed-circuit television] cameras captured the image of the alleged Times Square bomber [Faisal Shahzad], yet none yielded his identity. Similarly, a mountain of false leads generated by electronic surveillance have distracted analysts: the reason the underwear bomber slipped into the country, despite warnings by his own family, was that reports of his threat potential were lost amidst other (less credible) leads.

“Traditional policing based on human intelligence — information supplied by communities that trust authorities — remain the best elements of a national security strategy. In contrast, looking for a needle grows only harder when hay is indiscriminately added to the stack.

“While surveillance is in some ways the antithesis of profiling (surveillance is broad and limitless, whereas profiling seems focused and targeted), both government practices offend the same constitutional principle of individualized suspicion inherent in the First and Fourth Amendments.”

For more information, contact at the Institute for Public Accuracy:
Sam Husseini, (202) 347-0020; or David Zupan, (541) 484-9167.