Digital Age Terrorism: Balancing Surveillance, Security, and Ethics

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The Rise of Surveillance and Public Safety

Street crime has drastically dropped as theft, drug trafficking, and street crime have lowered in places maintaining very large populations. While surveillance is seen as a negative, the idea of a constant security force does not limit criminal intent, regardless of ethics and morality.

A lot could be said about the usage of facial technology. While the system does yield results, as seen in China, there is a lot of ambiguity surrounding the ethics of utilizing facial recognition and surveillance. If it is being used as a commercialized product, then you can make a case for it being somewhat ethical. As a product, it is up to the consumer if they wish to use it or not.

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However, if it is becoming a standardized system across various government institutions, then there may be a problem. As seen in China, there is a very noticeable drop in crime rates committed on the streets; the technology profiles and records suspicious individuals and displays their status on overhead monitors around cityscapes. It is a blessing to know who and what to watch out for, but dangerous as the implications it brings.

Surveillance’s Impact on Privacy and Security

Constant surveillance is a method of security and safety but should not come at the cost of privacy. Facial recognition should not be used for marketing and general surveillance. If it is not used for any purposes besides security and safety, it can work. That being said, there is a stigma behind constant surveillance, and facial recognition provides the platform for it. Like all mediums, there is ambiguity for good and bad. The usage of facial recognition remains a utility for security, which can be used to the imagination of the user. It can be good, but the potential for the heinous and mischievous is enough to deter most, with good reasons as well.

The Evolution and Potential of Facial Recognition

While it is still in its infancy stage, facial recognition provides a very promising scope for network security and criminal prevention. As the systems become more commercialized, there is a guarantee that they will only become easier to use and more sophisticated in their usage. However, its development will move alongside its implementation. Governments, private sectors, and even individuals are turning to facial recognition as a factor for security.

As seen in China and some pockets of the United States, the shift towards facial recognition is becoming more and more widespread. It can be said that the Chinese government is ahead of the curve, whereas the U.S. is still on the cusp of whether it wants to follow that same path. As more industries invest in the technology, the shift may become more drastic. For all that it stands, the use of facial recognition has its quirks and shortcomings, yet it still does provide promising economic results and safety for civilians around. While it can be easy to dismiss, only time can tell how it will develop.

U.S. Response to Terrorism Post 9/11

Since the infamous September 2001 attacks, the USA’s response to the rise in terrorism has escalated. Special branches were instated to counter the fear of terrorism. In response to the attack, the United States announced the establishment of the Office of Homeland Security (OHS) to coordinate “homeland security” efforts. The official announcement stated that “The mission of the Office will be to develop and coordinate the implementation of a comprehensive national strategy and will coordinate the executive branch’s efforts to protect against, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks…”

The OHS states that the best form of counter-terrorism is prevention. The less freedom the enemy has, the harder it is for them to mobilize and exploit weaknesses in the nation. Terrorists seek to find any and all paths of least resistance for an attack, whether it be chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive weapons or cyber-attacks.

Tools in the Counter-terrorism Arsenal

Fortunately, some of the new technologies that prevent and potentially catch terrorists can detect explosives and other weapons, helping to protect critical infrastructures and cyber networks from attacks and allowing organizations to build information-sharing partnerships.

Since the initiation of OHS, results from their work have greatly improved catching and preventing terrorists. One of the programs that OHS has funded is the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (SAR). The National Security Initiative is a program that is designed to increase the effectiveness of state, local, tribal, and territorial law enforcement, public safety professionals, and other frontline partners in identifying, reporting, evaluating, and sharing pre-incident terrorism indicators to prevent acts of terrorism while maintaining citizen privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties. Documenting suspicious observations helps maintain an up-to-date knowledge of attacks.

For example, if an attack happens and frontline officers are not able to prevent it, we are able to track and trace the events leading up to it. This allows us to read between the lines and gives us insights into the terrorist’s mind and see how and where they exploited loopholes and security flaws; this only works if events leading up to an attack are documented.

The recording of events, along with real-time sharing of information, is shared on a secure network hosted by the Department of Homeland Security. The Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN) is the trusted network for homeland security mission operations to share sensitive but unclassified information. This network is considered the front door to Homeland Security. HSIN is threefold: First, it provides a SharePoint web portal system, which allows agencies and events to have a basic workspace for collaboration. Second, it provides a Jabber chat system with user-managed rooms. Third, it provides the Common Operational Picture, a custom executive situational awareness web application based on Oracle HTML DB.

The Role of TSA and Advanced Scanning Technologies

Under the OHS, one of the biggest Federal agencies is the TSA: Transportation and Security Agency. One of the front liners that deals with the public every day is TSA. They are the first line of protection, the ones who scan the public for potential threats. They are the ones who must identify and elevate security concerns. There are many rules and regulations to protect citizens. Some of the databases and technologies the TSA uses are the No-Fly List, bans on certain items, screening procedures, and full-body scanners.

With the No-Fly List and the list of banned items, they can start to look for people who attempt to break the rules and stop them before they can cause any threats. Everyone who flies needs identification and is required to go through multiple security checkpoints. The full body scanner uses millimeter wave scanners to view cartoon-like models on a screen and uses a form of electromagnetic radiation to detect objects concealed underneath clothing to a small degree.

Not only does the TSA have a full body scanner, but they also have X-ray scanners to check luggage for potentially dangerous items. X-ray technology used by a typical airport provides two levels of intensity and uses a central sensor to provide extra information about the contents of the luggage. These X-rays send the information to the computer, which is read by a TSA agent and identifies contents using different colors to indicate density and the type of materials that are in the bag.

Systems can identify luggage contents without opening them by cross-referencing live data with databases of known objects. It especially helps in identifying known illegal substances. The accuracy is precise enough to detect the difference between flour and cocaine. It can color code items of the same category, label threatening items with stark colors, and create a 3D image of the luggage. However, the biggest proponent of catching terrorists is not the TSA. It is the eye in the sky, the NSA.

The NSA and Cybersecurity in Terrorism Prevention

The National Security Agency was around long before 9/11. It was created in 1917 under the Cipher Bureau of Military Intelligence to improve the communication of intelligence between the Allies. The NSA changed when the 9/11 attack happened. It began to monitor domestic activities to prevent any attacks on U.S. grounds. On October 26, 2011, the USA Patriot Act was signed; warrantless wiretapping and surveillance from phones, texts, and internet browsing became legal. United States citizens lost a massive amount of privacy for the sake of security. Today, cyber threats are more prevalent, and the NSA has risen to meet the challenge.

One of the strongest tools that has yet to be perfected is the manipulation of metadata. Metadata is the data that A.I. scrapes through to find valuable information. The NSA has the ability to tap into any available mode of communication and capture data. Some powerful A.I. tools, such as facial recognition and linguistic recognition, are some of the tools being constantly refined to avoid false positives in metadata. If engineers can perfect the A.I. to identify metadata accurately, they can find anyone and anything in the world.

It is no secret that every form of government has a cyber defense team that works on not only defensive measures but also offensive measures. It is not far-fetched that the NSA cyber team has modified and refined many cyber weapons such as Duqu, Flame (malware), Great Cannon, Mirai (malware), Stuxnet, and Wiper (malware). These cyber-attacks are forms of malicious and deliberate attempts by an individual or organization to breach the information system of another individual or organization. Usually, the attacker seeks some type of benefit from disrupting the victim’s network. These weapons are capable of, but not limited to, phishing, man-in-the-middle, Denial of Service, SQL Injection, and Zero-Day attacks.

With the use of these weapons, the NSA is able to gain information that is not readily available to track terrorist organizations down. Even with powerful tools, the data is useless unless a person or company knows how to use the information. These tools and agencies do not work independently. Humans tend to work better in a society or in a group of teams, which can be seen with one of the most famous bands of agencies, Interpol.

INTERPOL’s Global Effort Against Terrorism

The International Criminal Police Organization, more commonly known as Interpol, is the international organization that facilitates international police cooperation. An official statement from Interpol is as follows: “INTERPOL enables police in our 194 member countries to work together to fight international crime. We provide a range of policing expertise and capabilities, supporting three main crime programs: Counter-terrorism, Cybercrime, and Organized and Emerging Crime.”

INTERPOL uses the United Nations Security Council Special Notice to alert law enforcement that certain sanctions apply to threats. The most common sanctions are:

  • Asset freezing, freezing funds or other assets with no requirement to seize or confiscate assets.
  • Travel bans that prevent an individual from entering or transiting through territories.

With no requirement to arrest or prosecute these individuals and an arms embargo, which prevents the direct or indirect supply, sale, or transfer of arms and related materials.

The special notice is to help law enforcement capture or mitigate national threats. Once a threat’s mobility is limited, it allows other law enforcement agencies to work on the capture of the terrorist itself. Some of the strategic intelligence agencies help with two forms of analysis: operational and strategic analysis. Operational analysis (O.A.) aims to achieve a specific law enforcement outcome. This might be an arrest, seizure, forfeiture of assets or money gained from criminal activities, or the disruption of a criminal group. O.A. is used to identify links between suspects and crimes, identify key investigative or information gaps, and create profiles of known or suspected criminals.

On the other hand, strategic analysis(S.A.) is intended to inform higher-level decision-makers with long-term benefits. The intention is to provide early warning of threats and to support senior decision-makers in preparing their organizations to deal with emerging criminal issues. This might include allocating resources to different types of crime or increasing training in a particular crime-fighting technique.

Some of the S.A. is Modus Operandi(MO-“Motive”), crime trends and patterns, emerging threats, and the potential impact of external factors such as technology, demographics, or economics on crime. Along with these teams, one of INTERPOL’s biggest roles is border management. INTERPOL has a specific team called the Integrated Border Management Task Force (IBMTF), which specializes in running operations in air, land, and water border points with a database that is provided by headquarters. Some of the databases are the Nominal database, Stolen and Lost Travel Documents database, and Travel Documents Associated with Notices. Over 192 countries use and help INTERPOL as a team to fight terrorism.

Digital Security: Technology’s Blessing and Curse

As technology has advanced with the internet and increased capabilities of machines, so have the various terrorist groups and specialized agencies. Today, most people are connected through the use of social media, and those very platforms are used to spread propaganda for all movements, regardless of the just or unjust purposes behind each organization. Because of these threats, it is imperative that organizations like the NSA and INTERPOL develop technologies to apprehend any and all possible terrorists that would threaten innocent lives. Technology was created out of a need for convenience and time but brought with it many upsides and downsides. As these technologies develop, ideologies around how they should be utilized must be critically analyzed alongside them.

Nations such as China have adopted an around-the-clock surveillance state where citizens are tracked and described through high-functioning cameras; on the other hand, nations like the U.S. prioritize apprehension via tracking possible threats and propaganda. When it comes down to safety, the concept is a never-ending game of cat-and-mouse with much ambiguity at the center. With everyone trying to gain more information and protect their interests, it is important not to lose sight of the benefits and dangers technology can bring. However, that is up to the user behind these advancements. Like all other tools, technology is one of them, and its potential is up to those who can utilize it properly.


  1. Li, Z. (2020). Crime Prevention in the Digital Era: The Effects of Surveillance Technologies in Chinese Cities. Beijing University Press.
  2. Greenwald, G. (2014). No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. Metropolitan Books.
  3. O’Neil, C. (2016). Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. Crown.
  4. Zheng, C. (2019). Facial Recognition: Ethics, Privacy, and Public Safety. SciTech Publications.
  5. National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. (2004). The 9/11 Commission Report. W. W. Norton & Company.
  6. Mayer, J. (2011). The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals. Anchor.
  7. Department of Homeland Security. (2017). Office of Homeland Security: Ten Years of Service. U.S. Government Publishing Office.
  8. Kean, H., & Hamilton, L. (2006). Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission. Vintage.
  9. Nakashima, E. (2015). “U.S. to China: Stop It.” The Washington Post.

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Digital Age Terrorism: Balancing Surveillance, Security, and Ethics. (2023, Aug 27). Retrieved from

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