What's going on with the NSA?

What a week for a government entity who's initials not that long ago stood for "No Such Agency".

The National Security Agency (NSA) is a part of the Department of Defense, not a part of the Justice Department like the FBI, nor is it an independent agency like the CIA. As such, its purpose is military intelligence gathering, not law enforcement and not explicit spying. Recently it has gotten into hot water because of leaks from former Booz Allen contractor, Edward Snowden. On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported Snowden claiming that US intelligence had been hacking Chinese computers since 2009.

Well, I certainly hope they did!

C'mon, folks... spies spy, right? Haven't we been all up in a tizzy about the Chinese hacking everything we Americans do? Well, we should be hacking their stuff, too. The difference is what we do with the intelligence we gather. There is evidence that the Chinese use information gathered by spying on us to further their commercial interests. I doubt seriously that the US spy agencies do the same, unless the Chinese are leading us in defense technology.

It seems that every major deal where the Chinese outsource our manufacturing, they demand a technology transfer to go with it. Our manufacturers are all too willing to sell out our technological advantage for their short term gain of cheap labor and virtually non-existent environmental protection. So, who needs who when we spy on each other? Do we need Chinese technology or do we just need information about their sources and intentions?

If our intelligence agencies were not penetrating the Chinese communication infrastructure, we would be negligent in our duties. Both sides would be equally negligent if they were not trying to keep the other side out.

Now, the news that the NSA is using its PRISM program to vacuum up massive quantities of domestic Internet information is quite disturbing to this blogger. I doubt that this sort of intelligence gathering is within the charter of the NSA. On the surface, the fact that someone (NSA, FBI, DoJ or whatever other government agency) is perusing my cell phone meta data doesn't bother me too much. I have no expectation of privacy in my telephone traffic. The only hope I would have for privacy is security through obscurity. In other words, there is so much data out there, that the only way they would use my information is if they were specifically targeting it.

When I use publicly free email and search engines, I also have no expectation of privacy. I do expect discretion, so that someone couldn't choose me and then drill into my information and habits. That should be illegal, but not surprising if it was done.

However, we are now becoming aware of new technology that allows massive databases to be efficiently combed for trends and connections. If what we assumed was the former capability could be likened to dropping a fishing line into the ocean, what the agencies are now doing would be akin to running a huge fleet of ocean-going trawlers, scooping up all manner of flora and fauna in a miles-wide swath.

The leak that "Dropbox was next" was particularly disturbing to me. With Dropbox, Box.net, Skydrive and other paid-for online data services, I DO expect privacy. Penetration of my data stores on the internet by whomever (public or private) is the equivalent of breaking and entering my home. This is unacceptable without a specific court ordered warrant. (And with this sort of warrant, we should be given notice. If the police have a warrant to search your house, you have notice. If they search your online house, you should have the same notice.)

When I was in the Naval Reserve, I worked at and with that agency and every six months we had to attend what was loosely termed "USSID 18" training. It was mandatory for any member that was involved with interception of communications that might involve US persons. In this training, it was repeatedly stressed that we do not collect information on US persons and if we did happen up on it, it would be denoted in a generic, unidentifiable format, unless specific life-threatening incidents were uncovered. The collection of domestic information was not taken lightly, nor should it have been.

The world has changed in the 15 years since I was involved in these sort of things. Global communications knows no national borders. Packets may fly all around the world to get from Point A to Point B. Where 20 year ago, there were only so many cables that carried data internationally, now, data is everywhere. I can see how all data (the haystack) would need to be collected to find a specific item (the needle). However... we must be able to trust our intelligence agencies (people like those whom I worked with) to do the right thing. Is this trust still warranted?

I worry about the politicization of the process. I worry about DoJ sending a casual request over amongst other national security requests for a data set. This data set may involve communications between a buyer of drugs and a supplier in Columbia... between a trafficker of young girls in the Dominican Republic and a recipient in Miami... between a reporter and a source... between a Republican candidate and his adviser. It can be a slippery slope, can't it? Who would know the target if all the agency was looking for was a specific phone number or email address. Would it even be their responsibility to check?

With the revelation that CBS News reporter Sharyl Attkisson's computer was compromised, and with previous allegations concerning Fox News reporter James Rosen's telephone conversations being bugged and IRS targeting of political opposition groups for enhanced scrutiny, nothing seems to be beyond imagination, does it?

I used to trust my government. Maybe it was naivete, or maybe it was just ignorance of reality. I don't know. I do know that my 31 years of military experience in the intelligence community gave me no reason to expect that things like this would occur. Sure, Nixon wished he had more knowledge of what went on at the DNC, and Watergate happened. John Walker sold Navy crypto secrets to the Russians for money and other spies have sold the US out for many other reasons, but with the recent spate of 'consciousness', people who were entrusted with their nation's secrets have felt honor-bound to leak the information about a program that they do not agree with.

There will always be a tension between the moral and legal need to keep secrets and the moral and illegal desire to reveal them. When the revealer of secrets is on the other side, it is a great day when the information comes to light, but when he is on our side, well...

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