The NSA Views Privacy As Damage And Routes Around It
from the solutions-are-needed-and-time-is-of-the-essence dept
Bruce Sterling, sci-fi author and wearer of assorted other hats (public speaker, design theorist, journalist) recently got together (so to speak -- the conversation was a messaging give-and-take facilitated by seminal internet entity The WELL) with Jon Lebkowsky (a "future-focused social polymath") to discuss 2013 and gaze into the upcoming year.
No discussion of the year's events would be complete without including Ed Snowden's NSA document leaks. Sterling's opening salvo addressed the NSA, pointing out how its ethos directly contradicts the utopian internet ideal.
Is it any wonder that the NSA took a page from Google, and started throwing money in the direction of anything that even LOOKED like it might be surveillance? The NSA interpreted privacy as damage and routed around it. Why not give that a try? The NSA has no effective civilian oversight. Whoever does?Contrast the NSA's goals with the internet in general, which has always perceived censorship as damage and routed around it. The openness that has been fostered is now threatened by an agency that views this ideal as a gift. The internet does most of its work for it, circumventing censors and providing a platform for unlimited and unfettered sharing of information. The people behind the sharing are not interested in giving up their privacy, which may seem at odds with the free flow of information.
The people propelling this free flow aren't important -- or rather, they're not where the focus should be. The NSA changes this. Where it flows from -- and whom it reaches -- is of chief interest to it. The agency's ability to pull communications right from the "trunk" of the internet undercuts the anonymity of the "transactions" and chills future sharing.
Sterling also calls out the agency for its lack of oversight, something it continues to claim is protecting the American public from its powerful capabilities. The talking points always route back to the Congressional oversight, but as Sterling points out, not only is the oversight ineffective, but being composed of politicians, it's extremely susceptible to being humored, rather than respected.
Suppose the entire US Congress came to your house in a body, to you, as a citizen, and they told you, well, anything at all -- in their collective wisdom -- something minor maybe, say they recommended a roach insecticide, for instance. Would you take that act at face value? Would you listen to the Congress with the respect due legally elected officials, and do what they said?The oversight can't be trusted as its internal workings are particularly fallible. Legislators mainly exist to be reelected. Tough decisions and meaningful legislative change aren't effective ways to remain employed. And so the agency lies to the oversight. And the oversight (for the most part… until very recently) accepts the lies, because doing so allows it to appear "effective." In fact, those involved may have had no idea until recently that they were being lied to. They just accepted the NSA's statements because to do otherwise would mean questioning a large variety of surveillance programs that have been extended and expanded over the last dozen years with little to no discussion.
"Hey," you might say, "the US Congress is the legitimate, elective legislative body of a superpower; so they can't be that bad! I'd better buy that aerosol can and spritz it around some!" Would you do that? Really? Wouldn't you pull an NSA, and pretend to do it, and then lie to them, lying as minimally as you could?
So, the agency lies to Congress. And Congress lies to itself. The problem now is that the American public is engaged in the debate, and some of those people vote. It's no longer acceptable to simply accept the agency's inaccuracies, misdirection and flat out lies. But to those truly paying attention, the truth is clear. Congress allowed the agency to run rampant for multiple years, and now it's finding it's a lot harder to roll things back than it is to let them spiral out of control.
The fixes needed, unfortunately, will be routed through the same people that took a hands-off approach to national security for so many years. Some adjustments will be made. There are a handful of legislators who have been attempting to hold the NSA accountable for years, but for the most part, the assumption that it was "fighting the good fight" was reason enough to not ask too many questions.
At the moment, it's politically expedient to pressure the agency to change. In a few years, this uproar may be all but forgotten. If changes are going to be made, they need to be made now, before leak fatigue sets in or the business-as-usual-brigade steers everyone back onto the path of least resistance. If the NSA manages to weather this unprecedented situation without sustaining any serious "damage," it will emerge stronger -- and more willing to overstep its bounds -- than ever.