Tuesday, November 05, 2013

The Public Outcry Over N.S.A. Surveillance Isn't Going Away...

In September, when it was reported that the N.S.A. had been engaged in mass surveillance of virtually all Internet traffic, there followed a public outcry that has yet to subside. However, to many individuals working within the intelligence community, and the larger national security complex in general, the reaction was more ho-hum; something of a shrugging of the shoulders. Indeed, the surprise was that so many people were so surprised.

With the passage of a few weeks, we all, by now, have had the chance to process these events and should now start giving this issue some meaningful perspective.

First of all, and let's not beat around the bush, yes, the government is monitoring all Internet traffic. And while that's a potentially frightening proposition, two things need to be kept in mind before people take an alarmist position - 1) this is nothing new; the federal government has been trying, for many years, to perform such all-encompassing surveillance of cyberspace, and doing so in full public view, as is the case with Clipper Chip proposal in the 1990s; 2) it must be understood that there is no individual in the N.S.A. or any other agency sitting at a desk and reading your emails. The entire program is implemented using data mining - which means that a software algorithm seeks out specific patterns and raises a flag when it finds one. That's a beast of a completely different sort.

Second, and let's be clear about something else, private businesses and corporations have been monitoring all of your Internet traffic for years too. Whether it's Google or Verizon or Apple or Facebook, every single e-focused corporation in existence monitors the content of your emails, your search queries, your browsing history, and your social networking behavior to the largest extent they can technically achieve. AND you have given them your explicit permission to do so by signing their Terms of Service agreement when you first began using their service.

So Big Brother clearly exists, and has for quite a while, in the form of both the government and private corporations. So why the discrimination in public outcry?

Third, on the technical side, intentionally creating backdoors into the hardware and software components of virtually every product on the global market, which is what the government has reportedly attempted, is a horrific mistake. It's the false logic that, "in order to make everything more secure, we need to make them less secure". Or we can use the analogy that it's as if the government mandated that every house have a key left under the front doormat, just in case they ever needed to look inside without your permission, and the whole system being dependent on no one ever discovering that every other house has their key under their doormat too. To say this is counterintuitive gives it too much credit. As a matter of fact, this strategy diminishes the security of the nation's critical infrastructure and cyber assets.

Fourth, it's important to remember the stated purpose of the surveillance efforts which is to keep Americans safe from terrorist attacks. Certainly, that's not to argue that the ends always justify the means, and that any and all actions taken towards that goal must be always permissible. However, what it ought to do is emphasize the point that this is an issue between two competing core values - privacy and security. Both are positive values in the American political system, thus neither side warrants being disregarded or demonized. Rather, this is a case where two core positive values have come into conflict with each other and we each have to decide at what point on the spectrum we believe the most prudent strategy rests.

Finally, from a prescriptive point of view, there is a way forward that can continue enhancing our security while still assuaging people's concerns over privacy rights - more transparency. Based on the public outcry over the N.S.A.'s surveillance efforts, but not Google's, I would argue that the issue is less about the surveillance itself and more about the intense secrecy behind the program. Secrecy and covert actions taken by clandestine government agencies, with virtually no oversight nor check on their power, is the absolute enemy of liberal democracy. Period. More transparency about general strategic policy, while still keeping technical implementation measures classified, would go a long way towards striking that critical necessary balance, allaying the public's fears, and keeping the government accountable to the People. After all, let us never forget, the government is not only meant to serve the people; it is meant to be BY the People.

  

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