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...?

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and on Google+

Filed Under: abuse, corruption, democracy, nsa, nsa surveillance, power, surveillance


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Sep 2013 @ 12:07pm

    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.

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