Remembering September 11: How America Has Changed

"Nothing will ever be the same" was our constant refrain after the terrorist attacks. But how different are we today, really?

9/11 flag eyes
Brian Stauffer for Reader’s Digest

In remembering September 11, we question: For good or bad, what has changed in America?

We have accepted less privacy.
Perhaps the most visible intrusions on privacy are the full-body scanners now being rolled out at airports around the country, although about two thirds of Americans say they’re willing to put up with such personal impositions to prevent terrorism.

Other infringements upon this fundamental American privilege are less apparent. Shortly after 9/11, Congress passed the Patriot Act, which expanded federal officials’ powers to keep tabs on our personal information, from credit card use to cell phone calls to car travel. Today, 3,984 federal, state, and local organizations take part in domestic counterterrorism efforts; the National Security Agency alone has about 30,000 people eavesdropping on 1.7 billion intercepted e-mails and other communications every day. In June, the FBI gave significant new powers to its 14,000 agents to search databases, screen household trash, and use stakeout teams to investigate “persons of interest.”

The upside: greater law enforcement success. Five billion mobile phones are now in use around the world, and 95 percent of users keep their phone within a yard of themselves at all times. “That’s the same as saying the location of 95 percent of these people can be determined anytime,” says Fred Cate, director of the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University. “Ten years ago, law enforcement would put a tail on someone; today, they call the cell phone company.”

Financial institutions are also huge repositories of easily traceable, and accessible, data: Emboldened by the expanded guidelines, the Treasury Department has subpoenaed records of millions of financial transactions. “We can match up money to find organized-crime financing much easier, and it works all the time,” Cate says.

But are we really safer? According to the Breakthrough Institute, a public-policy think tank, only two plots against the United States have been foiled because of the increased snooping allowed by the Patriot Act. Dozens of others, the report concluded, “were broken open due to the combination of well-deployed undercover agents, information from citizen or undercover informants, and tips from foreign intelligence agencies” — in other words, old-fashioned gumshoe work.

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