NSA Defenders Need To Learn: Trust Is Something You Earn, Not Legislate

from the wake-up-to-reality dept

I’ve been thinking about last week’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, NSA boss Keith Alexander, and deputy Attorney General James Cole. This was the one in which Senator (and Intelligence Committee chair) Dianne Feinstein both insisted that it’s shameful that the press and the public refer to the NSA’s surveillence program as “surveillance” while accidentally admitting that the NSA gets internet information via tapped “upstream” backbone connections. But if there was one issue that came up over and over again it was the palpable anger of the NSA’s defenders that the press and the public don’t trust them. This seemed to focus on a two key arguments:

  1. Everything we do is legal and is handled by “oversight from all three branches of government.”
  2. We’re not listening in on everyone’s calls, but trying to stop terrorist attacks.

First of all, the first claim is basically false and the second one is mostly a strawman, but also somewhat misleading to false (depending on your perspective of the continuum).

However, just for fun, let’s give the NSA and its defenders the benefit of the doubt, and explain how even if both of those points are 100% true, it still is no reason to trust them.

In response to the first point, the NSA defenders seem to think that just because the secret FISA court says this is all okay, that means the American people should agree that it’s okay. But that’s not how this works. In fact, part of the point why people are so pissed off about this is the fact that we don’t think this should be legal in the first place. Whether or not the courts decide that it’s legal doesn’t change that. And it certainly does not lead to “trust.” Quite the opposite. When the judicial system rules against what the American public believes is just and right, that hurts trust and makes us a hell of a lot less trusting of the judiciary.

As for the second point, the whole “we’re not listening to your calls with your mother” line is a total strawman. People (generally) aren’t concerned about whether or not the NSA is listening to calls like that. What they’re (quite reasonably) concerned about is the possibility that such powers can and are abused. And this type of abuse has happened many times before. This includes a few different kinds of abuse:

  1. Abuse for political power, such as spying on political enemies and critics.
  2. Abuse for personal reasons, such as spying on spouses and love interests.
  3. Abuse for law enforcement reasons, such as stretching the definition of the law or finding perfectly normal behavior that can be turned into a felony charge for the purpose of piling charges on people the government wants to lock up.

All of those things have happened (in some cases quite recently). The fact is that while the NSA might not be listening to calls between me and my mom, the NSA and other law enforcement agencies have long shown that they’ll come up with all sorts of excuses to spy on people they don’t like to try to twist and distort things, often out of context, to shut up people they don’t like. The NSA and its defenders response to all of this seems to be something along the lines of “sure that happened in the past, but we’re different.” Yet, they give no reason at all to show why they’re different. It just comes back to “trust us.”

But the American people (and, actually, the rest of the world) have been fooled plenty of times already. Telling people to “trust us” doesn’t cut it. At all. The only way to build trust is to earn it. If the NSA needs to do these kinds of things, prove it. Explain publicly what they do and why they do it, and let a public debate occur about whether or not this kind of effort is appropriate. That’s still missing. We’re just told to trust them, because they’re different and that the NSA doesn’t want to listen to every call. But that’s not what leads to trust. In fact, it just leads to greater distrust.

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Comments on “NSA Defenders Need To Learn: Trust Is Something You Earn, Not Legislate”

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out_of_the_blue says:


Government is inherently EVIL, only permitted and beneficial when it fights smaller or foreign evils, but its unchangeable basic nature is EVIL, and it must be watched constantly.

Of course it tends to get out of control. Those who can’t learn from history (that’s nearly everyone, by the evidence) are doomed to endless cycles of tyranny that vary only in degree and details. And this time, gov’t has learned from experiments and is setting up high-tech tyranny.

Beware of FOOL frat boys saying that you can EVER trust government. That’s just THE most basic mistake of all.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Post from OOTB

No it’s not a good post. It contains nothing based on fact and as always Blue is using it to lash out at people. Just because it’s not Mike for a change doesn’t make it good.

Anyone who believes governments are not inherently evil is a frat boy? Come on, it’s better than most of his work but it’s still shit.

Gwiz (profile) says:

Re: Post from OOTB

…but for once one of his posts are spot on. You can never trust a government, it is the nature of the beast.

I don’t agree with your “spot on” analyses of Blue’s comment.

Governments in and of themselves are not “evil”. Although once they reach their half-life stage they can most certainly be led astray by unsavory groups and/or individuals.

But, whether they are “evil” or not is immaterial. The fact of the matter is that they are necessary for a productive society. What exactly would you replace a government with? Lawless anarchy?

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Post from OOTB

Not just necessary, but inevitable. Humans are pack animals, and whenever you get more than three living together for an extended period of time, you will have a government. This is the essential flaw of anarchism — it will always transmute into some kind of government.

The question isn’t whether or not government is inherently good or evil, nor whether we should have one or not. The question is how can we shape the government we will inevitably have so it minimizes the downsides and maximizes the upsides.

This is why just saying “government is evil” and walking away is worse than pointless. It encourages disengagement. And when we are disengaged, then it virtually guarantees that we will have the worst of what government can be.

lfroen (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Post from OOTB

OOTB is dead wrong. The whole point of having “the government” is that you can trust them. That, btw is true for any form of government, monarchy included.

With democratically elected one, issue of trust is resolved by the very process – those are people you choose, so choose someone you trust.

Under monarchy, usually king is god-given, which is trustful enough for religious population.

So please, stop this nonsense of “government is evil”/”never trust” etc.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Post from OOTB

Government IS evil. By its very nature it is anti-freedom.
You point out a so-called “essential flaw” in anarchism. Well, how about the essential flaws in government? Even if you could “shape the government so it minimizes the downsides and maximizes the upsides”, how long would it stay that way? It could be said that that’s how the American government started out, and look at it now. Even the supposedly “best intentioned” government will always transmute into something evil.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Post from OOTB

I think you misunderstand me. I am not arguing that the government is good, or evil. Mostly because that’s irrelevant. I’m arguing that government will always exist as an inevitability of the human condition. Given that, the most rational thing to do is to make it as good as possible.

As to how long it will stay that way — it doesn’t work like that. It’s a constant and neverending struggle. “Good government” is a bit like Zen. You can’t ever achieve it, but it’s best to always work to get it anyway.

Baldaur Regis (profile) says:

Re: Strawman

If your mom lives overseas, she’s a terrorist.

If you talk to your mom, you’re a terrorist.

Coming soon: if the phone company allows you (a terrorist) to talk with your mom (another terrorist) then THEY must be terrorists. If the NSA doesn’t act against the phone companies (potential terrorists) then they themselves must be terrorists.

I could go on, but the meds are kicking in. Ahhh……

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Strawman

It sounds like even they see it as illegal and deal with it appropriately if they find out. It would be more appropriate to discuss how to catch the people abusing the data. As I understand it, the constant surveillance of the workers at NSA is excruciating to those who follow the rules.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Strawman

There are two aspects to this. You’re addressing one — how does the NSA ensure it complies with the law? This is certainly important, but I would argue that even more important than that is the other aspect: what they can do while remaining within the law is still egregious, unconstitutional, and shouldn’t be done.

the constant surveillance of the workers at NSA is excruciating to those who follow the rules.

By first thought? Boo-freaking-hoo. My second thought is perhaps a bit more charitable: since people can certainly get away with breaking the rules, perhaps the rules are only excruciating to those who choose to follow them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Strawman

You are right on the aspects. I find that the second aspect has been dealt with in large amounts in other news though and it seems to have become a big seller among politicians, even though the improvements are likely to be watered down considerably!

As for breaking the rules, I have had the exact same second thought. NSA is secretive about their internal safety measures (and some secrecy there is absolutely warrented to avoid giving workers ideas!).

However, there might be more fundamental ways to discourage internal abuse: Surveillance is almost always somewhat automated and predictable and obviously adding more surveillance internally would only make it that much harder to review. The ways to improve could be randomizing some of the surveillance and going in more details to discourage non-gamblers and better catch serial abusers, reducing the number of programs and/or workers considerably to make it easier to review and cleaning out the cultural problems of ao. “as little info to FISC as possible” aka “FISC = enemy” and “least untruthful wording” aka “word-games” to avoid the constant problematisation of the system they work under and thereby the indirect encouragement of workers to defy it!

Brazenly anonymous says:

Re: Re: Strawman

Currently, sure. However, the capability being in existence greatly increases the chance of governmental coup being able to settle into a totalitarian state, thus making it far more likely that such coups will be attempted. Whether or not anyone is deliberately manipulating things towards such a position is immaterial (and such a conspiracy probably doesn’t exist).

Each time the government allows our rights to be restricted or corrupt actions to be legitimized, the path such a conspiracy would have to walk becomes easier. Eventually all it takes is a single charismatic bastard to realize how little is in their way and the curfews and secret police at your door.

If they are forbidden to use the data, they should be forbidden to collect it.

Loki says:

The problem here is the sort of threats they are really looking for (like a few dozen people gathering together and crafting a document saying “we’ve had enough of the government abuse of our welfare, freedoms and rights”) are exactly the sort of threats they are fostering by their very actions and behaviors (the impending government shutdown isn’t going to do much to help their cause).

Anonymous Coward says:

How about a 4th Abuse on the list...?

Manipulation – using the information gleaned to direct and redirect ideological propaganda to serve goals not necessarily in the best interest of citizens: in a manner similar to Sunstein’s ideas, or DARPA’s “Narrative Networks (N2): The Neurobiology of Narratives”?

Anonymous Coward says:

The NSA will never earn my trust. EVER.

If they came to me tomorrow and told me they were 100% completely disbanding, releasing all their contractors, laying off all their employees, setting fire to all their buildings, equipment and data and finally putting Clapper and Alexander, Feinstein and Rogers in prison where they belong, I wouldn’t trust them.

The entire lot of them are 100% corrupt to the core.

JTReyn (profile) says:

I couldn't say it better, Mike

Everything you say is right on. But they’re NOT going to earn it. They’re going to keep doing what they’re doing, except they’ll do more of it.

So we have to make ourselves as “small” as possible on the Internet. Start encrypting your browser, email and cell phone messages. Then take everything offline and stash it in a CloudLocker (www.cloudlocker.it) which stays in your home but you can still access your data and they need a warrant to get inside. We’re going to see more new products like this to help protect us from the people supposed to protect us.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: I couldn't say it better, Mike

I’m not so sure the CloudLocker is the way to go. It still requires an account with a third party (StoAmigo) to manage access to your files. So, even though your files are being stored on a local device, all access to and from that device (including, I think, the file data itself — the site is a bit vague on this point) flows through a third party.

You’d be much better off using a private cloud that is actually, you know, private.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: I couldn't say it better, Mike

That is certainly technically possible, and it may even be true. I don’t know. All I know is that they claim it — but it still means that we have to put blind faith in a third party. We need to trust that they’re both being truthful and have implemented their system correctly. In this day and age, such trust is a dangerous thing and shouldn’t be given casually.

They could have implemented the system in a way that didn’t require a third party component at all, but chose not to. I simply think that the safer thing to do is use one of the solutions that don’t require trusting a third party.

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