Don’t misread me. I’m disturbed by the recent revelations about the NSA intelligence gathering. Sure, thwarting terrorism is its intention, and I’m not expert enough about intelligence to know all the algorithms and strategies to make it effective. However, the collection of all phone calls, e-mails, text messages, and whatever else seems overly broad. I’m skeptical that the government could restrain itself from mining all this raw data for other purposes. It can sift through billions of records a day with powerful computers to find something, whatever that something might be. Am I really supposed to be comforted that the government is not listening to my phone calls (which means that it can)? Besides, with e-mail and text messaging we leave a written trail, which is much clearer.
But a lot of stuff surrounding this is a little mind-boggling to me. First, there seems to be a weird sense of outrage among public officials about the program. Congress and the President seem shocked that this happened, but their shock is for public consumption because it really caught them in an awkwardly compromised position (click here for a similar reaction by Claude Rains). They want to fault it, but they also want to keep appearing vigilant against terrorism.
Second, this highly sensitive intelligence gathering operation is out-sourced? It’s one thing for our government to collect this, but leaving this to a government contractor doesn’t give me a lot of confidence about safeguarding the information. What if the contractor got a gazillion dollars more than the government contract to sell the information to another government? But Booz Allen is not the only private contractor. According to a report by the Washington Post done in 2010, there were 1,931 private companies working on this stuff. Those companies are in addition to the 1,271 government agencies doing similar work.
Third, Snowden received top security clearance, and he didn’t graduate from high school? I realize I’m judging him by his thin academic credentials without meeting him. Still, I would think that granting someone security clearance at this level should require at least a bachelor’s degree as a sign of maturity and responsibility. Of course Booz Allen’s official statement expressed shock. I have to ask them, “What were you thinking when you hired this man?”
Fourth, top secret clearance. About half, 12,500 people, of Booz Allen’s employees have it. That may sound like a lot of people, which it is, but about 854,000 people hold top secret security clearance nationally between private companies and the government. That’s a lot of people who have to keep quiet. However, the overwhelming number of people with this level of clearance take their responsibility seriously.
Fifth, why are we shocked and surprised? Knowing a little bit about the internet, I’ve known for years that the technology to “sniff” data going across the network was possible. Furthermore, an op-ed piece in The New York Times appeared in August 2012 that raised questions about the NSA intelligence gathering and the need to have stricter controls. Senator Wyden (D-Oregon) has been trying to make the NSA accountable for years. The tools are available and human nature is not always benign.
The disclosure of this intelligence gathering was inevitable. Our intelligence program has become so large as to make it unmanageable and unaccountable. How do you ensure that almost 900,000 people don’t reveal government secrets? How do you hold almost 2000 private companies accountable and ensure that they hire mature, responsible, and intelligent people?
Again, I can’t state enough that I think this broad intelligence gathering effort is wrong. Yet, I can’t really get overly outraged either because a lot of what we did that was formerly private is not private anymore. My credit card purchases leave a record of my consumer history. I read newspapers on-line, which means the publisher has a record of my reading preferences. When I drive on toll roads, by E-Z Pass records when I get on the road and when I get off of it (and with some basic arithmetic can calculate my average speed). My grocery shopping card provides the retailer and the food companies my consumption patterns. The ultimate irony is Facebook – those of us who post actually are providing that company with free inventory to sell and use as it wishes. All of this data can be aggregated by computers which will probably predict with great accuracy my activities for the coming weekend and even what I’ll probably eat.
Honestly, I should be angry about the government’s widespread intelligence gathering operation, but I’m not. Dismayed, yes. Wary, certainly. Angry, no. I’m not surprised given the size of our intelligence gathering operation. I also acknowledge that I’m leaving a digital trail to be followed by private corporations whose intent is not to protect me from a terrorist attack, but to find a way to sell me something.
Maybe the most important aspect of this NSA scandal is its “slap in the face” quality. Maybe the government will be less complacent about data (I hope so) and we won’t be so cavalier about its release.