NSA Chief Says NSA Doesn't Need Access To Your Info… As Whistleblowers Say They're Already Getting It
from the cyber-security? dept
The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) recently held an event about cybersecurity and cybersecurity legislation. The keynote speech was from NSA boss General Keith Alexander. He of course talked about why he supports cybersecurity legislation, such as CISPA and other proposals that will make it easier for the NSA access private content from service providers — much of which, reports claim, they’re already capturing and storing. Alexander has claimed that the NSA doesn’t have “the ability” to spy on American emails and such, and reiterates that claim during the Q&A in this session, insisting that the Utah data center doesn’t hold data on Americans’ emails (and makes a joke about just how many emails that would be to read). That’s nice for him to say, but so many people with knowledge of the situation claim the opposite.
In fact, in a story that has received almost no attention, the EFF was able to get three whistleblowers to speak out on the NSA’s massive spying infrastructure:
In a motion filed today, the three former intelligence analysts confirm that the NSA has, or is in the process of obtaining, the capability to seize and store most electronic communications passing through its U.S. intercept centers, such as the “secret room” at the AT&T facility in San Francisco first disclosed by retired AT&T technician Mark Klein in early 2006.
So it’s interesting to pay attention to what Alexander has to say in pushing for cybersecurity legislation. You can watch the full video below, if you’d like:
He does insist that worse attacks are coming, but provides no basis for that (or, again, why the NSA needs your info). In fact, according to a much more believable study, the real risks are not outside threats and hackers, but internal security screwups and disgruntled inside employees. None of that requires NSA help. At all.
But it sure makes for a convenient bogeyman to get new laws that take away privacy rights.
Alexander, recognizing the civil liberties audience he was talking to, admits that the NSA neither needs nor wants most personal info, such as emails, and repeatedly states that they need to protect civil liberties (though, in the section quoted below, you can also interpret his words to actually mean they don’t care about civil liberties — but that’s almost certainly a misstatement on his part):
One of the things that we have to have then [in cybersecurity legislation], is if the critical infrastructure community is being attacked by something, we need them to tell us… at network speed. It doesn’t require the government to read their mail — or your mail — to do that. It requires them — the internet service provider or that company — to tell us that that type of event is going on at this time. And it has to be at network speed if you’re going to stop it.
It’s like a missile, coming in to the United States…. there are two things you can do. We can take the “snail mail” approach and say “I saw a missile going overhead, looks like it’s headed your way” and put a letter in the mail and say, “how’d that turn out?” Now, cyber is at the speed of light. I’m just saying that perhaps we ought to go a little faster. We probably don’t want to use snail mail. Maybe we could do this in real time. And come up with a construct that you and the American people know that we’re not looking at civil liberties and privacy, but we’re actually trying to figure out when the nation is under attack and what we need to do about it.
Nice thing about cyber is that everything you do in cyber, you can audit. With 100% reliability. Seems to be there’s a great approach there.
Now all that’s interesting, because if that’s true, then why is he supporting legislation that would override any privacy rules that protect such info? If he really only needs limited information sharing, then why isn’t he in favor of more limited legislation that includes specific privacy protections for that kind of information? He goes back to insisting they don’t care about this info later on in the talk, but never explains why he doesn’t support legislation that continues to protect the privacy of such things:
The key thing in information sharing that gets, I think, misunderstood, is that when we talk about information sharing, we’re not talking about taking our personal emails and giving those to the government.
So make that explicit. Rather than supporting cybersecurity legislation that wipes out all privacy protections why not highlight what kind of information sharing is blocked right now and why it’s blocked? Is it because of ECPA regulations? Something else? What’s the specific problem? Talking about bogeymen hackers and malicious actors makes for a good Hollywood script, but there’s little evidence to support the idea that it’s a real threat here — and in response, Alexander is asking us all to basically wipe out all such privacy protections… because he insists that the NSA doesn’t want that kind of info. And, oh yeah, this comes at the same time that three separate whistleblowers — former NSA employees — claim that the NSA is getting exactly that info already.
So, this speech is difficult to square up with that reality. If he really believes what he’s saying, then why not (1) clearly identify the current regulatory hurdles to information sharing, (2) support legislation that merely amends those regulations and is limited to just those regulations and (3) support much broader privacy protections for the personal info that he insists isn’t needed? It seems like a pretty straightforward question… though one I doubt we’ll get an answer to. Ever. At least not before cybersecurity legislation gets passed.