The great paradox of our national security

Summary:Freedom vs. security. It's a challenge as old as the nation. It's a great paradox, perhaps the greatest paradox in the history of civilization. How do we retain our privacy and our freedom while still defending against horrific threats?

On the morning of September 11, 2001, between the hours of 8am and 11am New York time, terrorists attacked our nation. Nearly 3,000 people were killed and more than 6,000 were injured.

At 2:49 pm Boston time on April 15, 2013, two bombs exploded in the middle of the Boston Marathon. Five people died and 280 reported injuries.

In the dozen years between these two dates, there have been numerous plots by enemies foreign and domestic. While each of these plots (and, in fact, the events of 2001 and 2013) were based on widely differing motivations, the end goal was the same: kill Americans.

Most of these plots haven't been covered in the news media. A crowd of people not being killed, someone not dying, bridges not being bombed: all of these are not news. The news media rarely covers an event that doesn't happen.

But just because these events didn't happen -- just because Americans didn't die on those days -- that doesn't mean nothing at all happened. In fact, it's been through the tireless (and very dangerous) work of many of our government servants — members of law enforcement, employees at agencies with initials like FBI, CIA, and NSA — that these non-events were, in fact, non-events.

There are bad people out there. Fact. They want to kill Americans. Fact. Many thousands more Americans would have died if it weren't for America's counter-terrorism operations. Fact.

This brings me to the recent, breathless coverage about the NSA and Verizon. Our own Zack Whittaker has done a great job covering the story. As just about everyone with a pulse now knows, the NSA and Verizon are accused of sharing phone metadata on many customers. Another story broke later from the same UK source, claiming FBI, NSA said to be secretly mining data from U.S. tech giants.

There are a ton of issues here. First, although neither the government nor Verizon have denied these activities, neither have they confirmed them. Second, the source of these reports, one Glenn Greenwald has long had an anti-American government bent. He and I went at it over Twitter back in the day because he's been an enthusiastic supporter of Wikileaks and Bradley Manning, and I'm not a fan of trusted military servicemen stealing government secrets and providing them to our enemies.

The point is, these stories can't be fully confirmed. They've been posted by a known anti-US security activist writing for a publication operating in another nation.

UPDATE: DNI denounces these stories, confirming some of the details

That said, there's undoubtedly some truth in these stories. Here's the thing: protecting America is hard. We're a nation of more than 300 million people with freedoms unlike any ever experienced by a populace in human history. Every one of us is legally a loose cannon.

At the same time, America (like any nation) has always had enemies in the form of nation states, political and religious movements, organized crime, and just plain wackos.

The scope of the problem is huge, nearly impossible. We expect our government to protect us from threats that can come in any of hundreds of millions of different directions. When one or two get by, we cry out loud and we express extreme anger -- not just at the bad guys, but at our government for letting it happen.

Freedom vs. security. It's a challenge as old as the nation.

In recent years, it has become apparent that it's simply too dangerous to let security lapse. With threats ranging from dirty bombs to pressure cookers to mis-directed passenger airplanes, the potential for death and destruction is off the charts.

The best way to prevent this is to find and arrest the perpetrators after they plot but before they kill. In the days of old, the way this was done was with plain ol' shoe leather: investigation. Ringing door bells. Getting search warrants. Sending thousands of agents out to search for one criminal.

But our country is way too big now, with way too many people, for that to be possible. We need to use data analytics to help solve the problem. We have to sift through whatever details the courts and judges allow.

We've been doing this sort of sifting for years. Mostly, it's been of communications into and out of the U.S., not between American citizens. But the September 11 bombers were inside the U.S., as were the Boston Marathon bombers in 2013. Just sifting international data wouldn't have stopped those atrocities.

And that brings us to things like phone records. This is a double-edged sword. Most of the wailing and crying of the last day has been focused on one of those edges: our privacy. I'll come back to that in a minute.

But first, let's look at the protection side of the equation a bit more. We want and expect our government to protect us, and big data analytics is one such way. Were we sure, absolutely sure, that our officials were only sifting through that data to find bomb-toting terrorists, we'd all feel more comfortable.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government, like all governments throughout history, is occupied by humans with human strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes law enforcement goes too far. Sometimes it becomes overzealous. Sometimes it sacrifices its soul in pursuit of its prey.

And that's what makes most of us nervous about the Verizon story and the other stories about our cloud vendors sharing our data. At what point does a search for a terrorist become an IRS vendetta against a someone with political leanings in opposition to those in power? At what point do laws meant to counter terrorism get applied (with the loosest of justifications) to spying on members of the press?

At what point do we lose faith in our government? At what point do we not only not trust our government to protect us, but expect our government to be actively hostile to us? At what point does our government stop being our friend and become the creepy predator down the street?

This is why the NSA/Verizon story is so huge. It's because we've lost faith in our government to be on our side. We could all go on for days arguing where that loss of faith occurred, but that's not the point. There has been an undeniable loss of faith over the last decades, and it's probably here to stay.

The problem is, even though many of us have lost faith in the government, we're still at risk. We're still threatened by terrorists, rogue nation states, hostile actors, organized crime, and nutballs.

We may have lost faith in our government. We may not trust our government at all. But we still expect our government to protect us from terrorists and hostile nations.

It's a great paradox, perhaps the greatest paradox in the history of civilization. How do we retain our privacy and our freedom while still defending against horrific threats?

We use technology as a defense. Big data analytics. It's the core of the NSA/Verizon story and will be a major story for years to come.

Understand that our government must sometimes do worrisome things to protect us. But it's up to us to protect our nation's soul. That's how it's always been in America. It's our greatest truth. It's our greatest strength.

When we see them crossing that line, when we see government officials flaunting the Constitution for reasons other than national defense, then it's time -- to quote the great Jean Luc Picard -- to peaceably insist, "The line must be drawn here! This far, no further!"

Our government is responsible for protecting our nation. It's up to our law enforcement and national security agencies to enforce "This far, no further" with our enemies and those who would do our society harm.

When our own government crosses the line (as they are wont to do from time to time) and they impinge on the very freedoms we hold so dear, we must use our power. We must use the power of the Internet, the power of the press, the power of social networking and the power of the ballot.

We must also use good judgment. We need to understand that our officials have a very hard job to do and we can't hamstring them when they're doing it. But we also can't let them get out of control or forget who their protecting.

This far, no further comes from the people, who hold these truths to be self-evident.

Topics: Privacy, Government, Government : US, Security

About

In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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