Why The NSA Must Be Reined In — For Democracy's Sake

from the mission-creep dept

In the wake of the continuing leaks about the NSA’s activities, most commentators are understandably still trying to get to grips with the enormity of what has been happening. But John Naughton, professor of the public understanding of technology at the UK’s Open University, tackles a very different question on his blog: what is likely to happen in the future, if things carry on as they are?

Naughton notes that the NSA’s mission statement includes the following phrase: “to gain a decision advantage for the Nation and our allies under all circumstances.” “Under all circumstances” means that as the Internet grows — and as we know, it is currently growing rapidly — so the NSA will naturally ask for resources to allow it to do tomorrow what it is doing today: monitoring more or less everything that happens online. Naughton then asks where that might lead if the political climate in the US remains sufficiently favorable to the NSA that it does, indeed, get those resources:

The obvious conclusion therefore, is that unless some constraints on its growth materialise, the NSA will continue to expand. It currently has 35,000 employees. How many will it have in ten years’ time? Who can say: 50,000, maybe? Maybe even more? So we’re confronted with the likelihood of the growth of a bureaucratic monster.

How will such a body be subjected to democratic oversight and control? Let me rephrase that: can such a monster be subjected to democratic control?

Although optimists might answer ‘yes’, Naughton points to the FBI as an example of what has already happened in this area:

those with long memories recall the fear and loathing that J. Edgar Hoover, the founder — and long-term (48 years) Director — of the FBI aroused in important segments of the American polity. The relatively restrained Wikipedia entry for him claims that even US presidents feared him and quotes Harry Truman as saying that “Hoover transformed the FBI into his private secret police force”. “We want no Gestapo or secret police”, Truman is reported as saying. “FBI is tending in that direction. They are dabbling in sex-life scandals and plain blackmail. J. Edgar Hoover would give his right eye to take over, and all congressmen and senators are afraid of him.”

He then goes on to draw the obvious parallel with a possible tomorrow:

Now spool forward a decade or so and imagine a Director of the NSA, a charismatic ‘securocrat’ imbued with a mission to protect the United States from terrorists and whatever other threats happen to be current at the time. He (or she) has 50,000+ operatives who have access to every email, clickstream log, text message, phone call and social-networking post that every legislator has ever made. S/he is a keystroke away from summoning up cellphone location logs showing every trip a lawmaker has made, from teenager-hood onwards, every credit- and debit-card payment. Everything.

And then tell me that lawmakers will not be as scared of that person as their predecessors were of Hoover.

Think that could never happen? Are we sure…?

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Comments on “Why The NSA Must Be Reined In — For Democracy's Sake”

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Ninja (profile) says:

People don’t think ahead. If they did we’d have much less things being done “for the children” for instance. Because a lot of what is being done “for the children” is screwing up their futures even if it seems a good thing now. Same with law enforcement and intelligence services. We are protecting you from the terrorists now! – they say. But who will protect us from them in the future?

MondoGordo (profile) says:

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Now spool forward a decade or so and imagine a Director of the NSA, a charismatic ‘securocrat’ imbued with a mission to protect the United States from terrorists and whatever other threats happen to be current at the time….
Actually rewind 1 year and then tell me that lawmakers(at least those “in the know”) are not as scared of that person as their predecessors were of Hoover. Sure explains the NSA defenders and apologists, don’t you think ?

Anonymous Coward says:

“Let me rephrase that: can such a monster be subjected to democratic control?”

If there is a genuine will to control it, yes. But people need to stop whining about 9/11 and remember that, if you want true change, you need to be willing to sacrifice your life for it. Remember your civil war.

I mean, for fuck’s sake, your country allows you to buy and carry an automatic weapon*. And you are afraid of terrorists? And you let your government walk all over you? Really?

You could argue that you want to settle things peacefully with some speech…But, let’s be honest: How’s that working out for you?

Oh, and a rant:

“The relatively restrained Wikipedia entry…”

Are we treating wikipedia as a primary source now? Credibility–

* Yes, yes, depends on the state…

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re:

On your rant:

Are we treating wikipedia as a primary source now? Credibility–

Wikipedia is a solid source because they disclose their own sources for the articles. You can question a determined article if it lacks decent sources but not Wikipedia as a whole.

The obligatory sources:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reliability_of_Wikipedia (see the sources really)

Mr. Oizo says:

Re: Re: Re:

Wikipedia is a bunch of masturbating moderators. They are not interested in content; only form. They expect that everybody who contributes will debate them ad infinitum. It has become a hopeless cesspool of infighting, by people who want power and need to feed their ego. Just to give an example: the comments on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afshar_experiment show how a scientific published experiment (which baffled the community) had to be debated again at Wikipedia by a bunch of ignorami. Well.. just browser around in the talks sections and you will find that it has become a shame of knowledge, not a source.

TheLastCzarnian (profile) says:

Already happening

I think we can see what will happen pretty clearly from what happened 2 days ago. Dubbed a “day of rememberance”, it seems to me like a “day to remember to be fearful, and support whatever measures necessary to stay safe.” If politicians and the media can still play this card 12 years down the line, a good NSA, CIA or FBI head can easily play it for 50.

out_of_the_blue says:

Conspiracy theorist with a degree.

“professor of the public understanding of technology”!

Sheesh. Right there is part of the problem: dangers aren’t real to most people unless some pointy-headed academic, at least thirty years late to the subject even relative to me, announces it — considerably played down, no doubt in a soft sane “NPR voice”.

Besides that, don’t forget that at every US (UK) university are DOZENS of professors (and adminstration) who are paid by NSA (GCHQ or whatever), one way or another, specifically to engineer and implement the surveillance.

Anonymous Coward says:

J. Edgar Hoover wet dream

I’ve long advocated the position that Facebook and the internet in general are a “J. Edgar Hoover wet dream”. It’s an obvious and often (at least until now) overlooked parallel that should scare the bejeezus out of anyone that doesn’t tow the line of the ever growing nationalist, imperialist plutocratic agenda of those for whom the accretion of money and power has granted positions of authority.

The idea of a “shadow government” working in the background (so-named by american politicians of the past) is all too often dismissed by those with no imagination or recollection of history or who possess the indifferent ignorance of the comfortable many. However, it’s an all to frightening reality that continues to grow unchecked and unbalanced.

We can only dare to hope we have any power whatsoever to do anything about it at this point.

The Gene Roddenberry image of the future so ingrained in our culture is too optimistic and trusting for us to accept it as our ultimate destiny; but we can’t stand back and simply accept the dystopian mythologies as models of our fate either.

Kal Zekdor (profile) says:

Re: Forget Reining them In

I’d say the NSA are best likened to an Autoimmune Disease. They were once an entity that protected the body against foreign threats. However, after a particularly virulent infection (i.e. 9/11), they began to confuse ordinary, healthy cells with potential threats. In an attempt to cure this perceived infection, the distinction between healthy and diseased cells was lost, and the immune system began indiscriminately attacking cells, ironically becoming a larger threat to the body than the infection which provoked the autoimmune response to begin with.

Anonymous Coward says:

it’s too late for that. even the President has no respect for democracy, so how can anything that’s done to anyone or anything else respect it? the only way is to revert to what it should be about! the Constitution was written for a specific purpose, so that when the government (or it’s representatives) were getting out of hand, they could be reminded of why they were in office. with that having been disrespected by the government and BY THE COURTS on as many occasions as possible, it shows that the country is in serious trouble. what is even worse is that the way this is happening is being forced on to other countries and threats are used against any country that tries to resist. in truth, the USA has gone from what was regarded as a pinnacle of democracy and freedom, to one that is the exact opposite. not being content with that, whoever is behind this degradation expanding it as much and as fast as possible. the preferred method of use being so-called trade agreements, like the TPP!!

Anonymous Coward says:

This is why the 4th Amendment is in the Bill of Rights! To prevent this exact scenario from happening.

All the unconstitutional seizing of law-abiding US citizen’s information, and later the searching of this seized information, is illegal.

It doesn’t matter if the NSA seizes this information through ‘passive collection’ techniques, or through subverting encryption standards. All of it is unconstitutional, and therefore illegal.

This is how totalitarian dictatorships start, folks. You better start believing it, or our children will be the ones paying the price for our inaction.

Us adults are lucky. We had the Founding Fathers and brave American soldiers to fight for, and protect our freedoms. Who do our children have fighting to protect their freedoms from the NSA.

The answer is, us, the American People. Hopefully we don’t fail our children’s, and their children’s children, right to freedom and democracy.

I truly believe Edward Snowden understood this, and that’s why he sacrificed himself to ensure Liberty survives for future generations to enjoy.

Anonymous Coward says:

What’s interesting is the way the threads of loyalty are being bought with our information.

Parcels of private data are handed to DEA who are loyal enough to fake a cover story as to how they got them.
Daily parcels to the President, to keep him loyal to the program, so he ‘sees the importance’ of keeping the program going.
Parcels to the foreign powers, to keep them spying on their own people.
I assume parcels of commercial secrets are handed to some US companies about their competitors (domestic and foreign) to keep them loyally handing over data.

It all works as long as the Brits PM, doesn’t see all the data on him and his family and his ministers the NSA hands to Israel.
And as long as Aussies doesn’t see all the commercial secrets handed to US Companies.
And as long as Judges don’t see the secrets handed to DEA.
As long as each party thinks its only the other guys data that the NSA is abusing, and that they are special, unique in the world that *their* data isn’t being abused, they sustain the lie.

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