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NSA and the Pandora's box of surveillance


Let's assume for a moment that National Security Agency Director Gen Keith Alexander was telling the truth yesterday on ABC News's "This Week" when he said that the NSA material leaked by Edward Snowden "has caused irreversible and significant damage to our country and to our allies."

That would mean that the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia and other friendly nations that depend on the NSA's ability to suck electrons out of the ether, store them, sort them, and computer-analyze them for intelligence purposes, have all suffered mightily.

Unlike tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes or hurricanes - disasters that tend to inflict only temporary damage that can be repaired - Snowden's leaks have visited upon the national security of the allies a blight that can't be rolled back or ameliorated. It's permanent. It's everlasting. You know, it's irreversible, as the general said.

According to Alexander, the Snowden breach ravages a program that has contributed to the "understanding and, in many cases, disruptions" of 50 terrorist plots, obviously implying that the unauthorized disclosures will hinder the future understandings and disruptions.

While Snowden is the confessed thief of the data, he's not the one who made the theft possible. Surely his superior, or his superior's superior, or his superior's superior's superior, or somebody on the NSA organization chart designed a flawed system that was easily defeated by a junior contractor. Surely a large bag filled with heads will roll at the NSA for this grievous lapse, and Alexander will accept responsibility for his own shortcomings and step down from the NSA so the president can assign a more competent director.

Instead of asking Alexander for his resignation, "This Week" host George Stephanopoulos needled him with penetrating questions about Snowden's heist, asking "Why the alarm bells didn't go off?" and "What's to say this couldn't happen again?"

Alexander had no concrete answer for how the alleged crown jewels of terrorist identification could have been stolen and were now on a world tour bound for South America. He cribbed his answer from every dairy farmer ever to lose a cow to say:

"Well, this is a key issue that we've got to work our way through. Clearly the system did not work as it should have."

Exactly! The gate has issues causing it not to close as advertised.

Then Alexander deflected the onus from himself and the NSA, and placed it on Snowden because a threatened bureaucracy always blames down. (Did any generals lose any stars over Bradley Manning's leaks to WikiLeaks? No.) The NSA, you see, didn't really fail. It was Snowden who failed.

Alexander continued: "Betrayed the trust and confidence we had in him. This is an individual with top secret clearance whose duty it was to administer these networks. He betrayed that confidence and stole some of our secrets."

Then Alexander got around to Stephanopoulos's question of why the $10 billion-a-year government agency won't experience another Snowden-esque theft.

"We are now putting in place actions that would give us the ability to track our system administrators, what they're doing, what they're taking, a two-man rule. We've changed the passwords. But at the end of the day, we have to trust that our people are going to do the right thing."

Change the passwords. Yes, such a good idea. New tracking systems and a two-man rule for access to data, too. But then Alexander wilts, confessing that no real protection exists outside of trusting the NSA's estimated 35,000 to 50,000 employees and contractors to do the right thing.

A big organization that needs to trust the thousands of employees who are said to have access to the surveillance programs is only setting itself up for future disappointment and another televised chat for its director with George Stephanopoulos.

A secret shared by a thousand people isn't much of a secret. As Snowden has demonstrated and Alexander has confirmed, the NSA's surveillance programs are inherently vulnerable and easily compromised. The NSA has demonstrated that it can neither guarantee the secrecy of its surveillance systems nor safeguard the privacy of the individuals who generate the bits of data.

As the NSA's surveillance system continues to expand, its collections will become only more vulnerable, as hundreds or maybe thousands of new employees and contractors sign on to manage the data load and devise new means of extracting and manipulating data.

Alexander may be tempted to re-change the passwords and establish a four-man rule for access to data, but will he? The data can only be useful to the government if it remains accessible, and if there's more data the demands for access to it will only rise, which means more potential Snowdens will be touching it. The NSA has a tiger by the tail.

Assuming that Snowden has maintained access to gigabytes of NSA data he purloined, I wonder when the Fort Meade signal-grabbers will begin to regret having collected and centralized such a sensitive, transportable stockpile. Not quite a Pandora's box, the NSA hoard exudes similar destructive power. Dispensed to the press by a civil libertarian like Snowden, it can be a weapon to blunt the surveillance state that created it. But in the hands of a hostile nation or belligerent force like al-Qaida, it might become a how-to guide to advanced surveillance.

And the data, oh, the data. A document from 2008 quotes Gen Alexander asking (let's hope he was joking), "Why can't we collect all the signals all the time?"

If unchecked, the NSA's data collection will eventually make Jorge Borges's idea of Library of Babel - a universal library of everything - look like a toddler's collection of Golden Books. After all, Borges was only looking back to the beginning of time. IBM estimates that 90% of the data in the world has been created in the last two years, suggesting a surveillance state must expand like an exploding star just to keep up.

As the surveillance state expands to collect everything - and Moore's Law will make it possible - we'll stop begging our own government to keep our data safe and start praying criminals and foreign enemies don't pilfer it.

© (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2013.

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

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As the surveillance state expands to collect everything - and Moore’s Law will make it possible - we’ll stop begging our own government to keep our data safe and start praying criminals and foreign enemies don’t pilfer it.

... and this is the real problem isn't it? As the author points out, "a surveillance state must expand like an exploding star just to keep up.". Obviously there's a limit to their resources, so they'll NEED to outsource data management to people like IBM... or hey, how about that champion of privacy Google? (much sarcasm intended)

While the government's intentions may be relatively pure (note I said "may", I'm by no means sure about that), the companies they outsource data management to will be ... well, capitalist companies out to make a quick buck by any means possible. The banking collapse showed us that even the most carefully regulated and supposedly ethical companies are more interested in profit than integrity.

As a result this data WILL end up being used for commercial purchases. Perhaps by the government to fund the spiralling costs of surveillance, perhaps by private companies looking to boost their profits on the side, however the end point is inevitable.

Anyone saying, "The innocent have nothing to fear" ... well, all I can say is that it is a hopelessly naive position. Only the hopelessly stupid and poor have nothing to fear. The rich should be terrified.

P.S. I wonder how it is possible to detect terrorists half a world away while the rich can evade tax simply by moving their assets into an extra account?

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Don't create programs that violate the constitutional rights of the people. If you do, then don't be surprised when those policies are brought to light by patriots working to protect our freedom.

This is their fault if it caused any damage. Like building a billion dollar house in a spot where you know there will be flooding and then acting surprised when it gets washed out. If you build security upon violations of the constitution and people you are supposed to be protecting, then do not be surprised when it is washed out by someone with the patriotism to expose your violations.

We have to stop allowing the governments of the world to rationalize violations of our human rights in the name of security. It does not make sense. Far more people die from bad habits every year than have ever died as a result of terrorism. Bathtubs, cigarettes, driving, alcohol, guns, sports, hiking, bar fights, home fights, accidents kill hundreds and hundreds of times the number of people who die from terror every year.

This obsession with terror that the state wants us to have is an excuse to control and monitor us and we need to wake up, access the fear and put it in perspective and protect our rights. I am far more afraid of a police state than I am of some guy in a desert hoping to blow something up.

6 ( +8 / -2 )

It's no surprise that governments try to monitor our communications, but when they break the law in doing so someone should be punished. What is surprising in the US case is that although the constitution has been, and continues to be violated, the focus is all on the whistleblower.

Even stranger, it's those who go on and on about their constitutional "right" to bear arms and their hatred of "big government" who are the ones most loudly calling for Snowden to be hanged, drawn and quartered. These people get outraged when someone suggests limiting the size of ammunition clips "unconstitutional! over my dead body" etc. But the government using their taxes to snoop on them? (also unconstitutional) "I don't care, I've nothing to hide".

You know, these surveillance systems are mostly automated and only flag up communications that contain certain trigger words. Maybe if everyone added some trigger words (bomb, explosion, al quaeda ...) to every e-mail they sent the system would become overloaded as they don't have the staff to screen every message.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

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