Our Connected World and the Unseen Legacies of 9/11
(Wired, Sept. 11, 2016) Tom Drake arrived at work on his first day as a full-time employee of the National Security Agency before sunrise on a cool, clear morning: September 11, 2001. As he shadowed the NSA’s director of signals intelligence in a briefing about a new $4 billion plan, codenamed Trailblazer, that would better apply the agency’s spying to the Internet, an aide opened a door and interrupted with news: A plane had hit the north tower of the World Trade Center. Minutes later, the aide returned. The south tower had been hit, too. Drake, a thin man with severe, deep-set eyes, stood up and said the words everyone in the room had been thinking: “America is under attack.” The agency’s modernization plan was already too late.
The director, Drake remembers, was whisked onto an express elevator to a crisis war room. Drake and thousands of other employees were sent home, as rumors swirled that Fort Meade might be the next target. The exodus caused a traffic jam. “We just sat in traffic, stunned.”
In the weeks and months that followed, the NSA indeed transformed, along with the rest of America. “It was clear that it was going to be a different world…that this was not going to be a normal crisis, but a years-long crisis,” Drake says. Today you can see just how much that moment reshaped America, in how you travel, the buildings you live in, the things you fear, and the privacy you expect. That’s the technological legacy of 9/11—an almost incalculable change to the visible and invisible infrastructure of everyday life.
The Surveillance State
American surveillance was reborn on September 11, and no single government agency embodies that change better than the National Security Agency. After the Cold War, the NSA had been reduced to a kind of backwater within the Pentagon, says James Bamford, the author of a trilogy of books on the agency. By the mid-1990s, it began to position itself as the go-to agency for preventing terrorism. But to do so required a fundamental shift in mission, from targeted eavesdropping on government satellite channels to eavesdropping on the far more diverse forms of communication used by terrorists, like cell phones and the nascent Internet. So the agency needed money.
After 9/11, it got it—coupled with the legal authority and the political mandate to take on that immense spying task. The Patriot Act, rushed through Congress within a month, allowed the NSA to suck up data from telecom and tech firms like never before (leading to the warrantless wiretapping scandal revealed by the New York Times in 2005). A provision of the law—Section 215—allowed the agency to continue collecting the metadata of every American phone call for well over a decade, until Edward Snowden’s leaks exposed the program in 2013 and led to its suspension …
… Following the attacks in 2001, federal, local, and state law enforcement agencies started protecting special events. Over time, that meant greater police presence at everything from New York Giants football games to Taylor Swift concerts. While lots of us remember being able to walk into a stadium with the scantest of bag checks, we’re now accustomed to a procedure not all that different from airport security lines: metal detectors, wands, and even pat-downs. “I think it has taken most of 15 years for the American people to get used to these ideas, but it seems to me now that there’s very little pushback,”says William Banks, the director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University. “I think we’ve just come to accept these differences in our way of life.”
Once a privacy debate lightening rod, even body scanners aren’t so controversial anymore to most Americans, according to a study by researchers at James Madison University. “In general I think people who fly understand that they want to be safe, and in their own minds think, ‘What may I give up to maintain my safety?’” says Thomas Dillon, an information security and privacy specialist.
Children born in the years after September 11, 2001 will never experience meeting relatives at the gate. The scene in Love, Actually, where families gather in the terminal to shower Hugh Grant and the rest of the characters with hugs and flowers will seem implausible at best. If you remember when flying was a more casual affair, that kind of movie scene appears now as a throwback to a more naive time.
Banks sees a future where attendance at concerts and sporting events is monitored ever more closely but less obviously, with drones, stingrays, and biometric systems paired with watchlist databases (in many cases—like the Super Bowl—this is already happening).” It won’t be noticed as much by many people,” Banks says, “but they may in some ways be more pervasive than the physical security.” After all, physical security screeners see what’s in your bag and your pockets; aerial and digital surveillance sees behavior, and potentially everything else …
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