NSA cryptanalyst: We, too, are Americans

NSA cryptanalyst: We, too, are Americans

Summary: ZDNet Exclusive: An NSA mathematician shares his from-the-trenches view of the agency's surveillance activities.


An NSA mathematician, seeking to help shape the ongoing debate about the agency's foreign surveillance activities, has contributed this column to ZDNet Government. The author, Roger Barkan, also appeared in last year's National Geographic Channel special about the National Security Agency.

The rest of this article contains Roger's words only, edited simply for formatting.

Many voices -- from those in the White House to others at my local coffee shop -- have weighed in on NSA's surveillance programs, which have recently been disclosed by the media.

As someone deep in the trenches of NSA, where I work on a daily basis with data acquired from these programs, I, too, feel compelled to raise my voice. Do I, as an American, have any concerns about whether the NSA is illegally or surreptitiously targeting or tracking the communications of other Americans?

The answer is emphatically, "No."

NSA produces foreign intelligence for the benefit and defense of our nation. Analysts are not free to wander through all of NSA's collected data willy-nilly, snooping into any communication they please. Rather, analysts' activity is carefully monitored, recorded, and reviewed to ensure that every use of data serves a legitimate foreign intelligence purpose.

We're not watching you. We're the ones being watched.

Further, NSA's systems are built with several layers of checks and redundancy to ensure that data are not accessed by analysts outside of approved and monitored channels. When even the tiniest analyst error is detected, it is immediately and forthrightly addressed and reported internally and then to NSA's external overseers. Given the mountains of paperwork that the incident reporting process entails, you can be assured that those of us who design and operate these systems are extremely motivated to make sure that mistakes happen as rarely as possible!

A myth that truly bewilders me is the notion that the NSA could or would spend time looking into the communications of ordinary Americans. Even if such looking were not illegal or very dangerous to execute within our systems, given the monitoring of our activities, it would not in any way advance our mission. We have more than enough to keep track of -- people who are actively planning to do harm to American citizens and interests -- than to even consider spending time reading recipes that your mother emails you.

There's no doubt about it: We all live in a new world of Big Data.

Much of the focus of the public debate thus far has been on the amount of data that NSA has access to, which I feel misses the critical point. In today's digital society, the Big Data genie is out of the bottle. Every day, more personal data become available to individuals, corporations, and the government. What matters are the rules that govern how NSA uses this data, and the multiple oversight and compliance efforts that keep us consistent with those rules. I have not only seen but also experienced firsthand, on a daily basis, that these rules and the oversight and compliance practices are stringent. And they work to protect the privacy rights of all Americans.

Like President Obama, my Commander-in-Chief, I welcome increased public scrutiny of NSA's intelligence-gathering activities. The President has said that we can and will go further to publicize more information about NSA's operating principles and oversight methodologies. I have every confidence that when this is done, the American people will see what I have seen: that the NSA conducts its work with an uncompromising respect for the rules -- the laws, executive orders, and judicial orders under which we operate.

As this national dialogue continues, I look to the American people to reach a consensus on the desired scope of U.S. intelligence activities. If it is determined that the rules should be changed or updated, we at NSA would faithfully and effectively adapt. My NSA colleagues and I stand ready to continue to defend this nation using only the tools that we are authorized to use and in the specific ways that we are authorized to use them. We wouldn't want it any other way.

We never forget that we, too, are Americans.

Roger Barkan, a Harvard-trained mathematician, has worked as an NSA cryptanalyst since 2002. The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Security Agency/Central Security Service.

Topics: Government, Government US, Privacy, Security


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • More word games from the NSA, shock!

    "NSA's systems are built with several layers of checks and redundancy to ensure that data are not accessed by analysts outside of approved and monitored channels. When even the tiniest analyst error is detected, it is immediately and forthrightly addressed and reported internally and then to NSA's external overseers."
    Good puppet, way to choose your words. It's great that if an "analyst" violates our privacy it gets detected. I notice that you don't say "any employee or contractor", however. What if Snowden downloaded data files about Americans? What if they include credit card number. Sorry if I don't bask in comfort with your assurances that our data is safe.
    Theodore Lebo
    • Translation

      "We at NSA make sure that only those who pay have access to the intelligence information. For example, if company ABC has paid for access to company XYZ's trade secrets, then we must know if company MNP also saw it, in order to take action. At least send them an invoice."
    • They don't access our data?

      They don't access our data? Then why are they collecting and storing it? Seriously, if you already know whose data to look at so you don't accidentally spy on American Citizens, then why don't you just collect data from those individuals and leave the rest of the nation out of your fishing expedition? Then there would be no chance of an unauthorized viewing of someone's data.

      I am calling Bull****!
      • This is part of the problem.

        The data should not be collected (or collectible) until a search warrant has been issued and the company that gives that information to the US Government without such a Search Warrant should not be free from litigation for acting without a search warrant.
        M Wagner
    • unsarcastically

      Our politically abused forefathers did not trust government. Just having our data violates the very intention of our constitutional protection. The individual ALWAYS needs protection from the group.

      Neither RB nor DG appreciates the dangerous power that has been seized in the name of safety.
      • Our forefathers were not trusted by the slaves,

        especially the moment the forefathers wrote in "3/5ths of a man" to legitimize slavery... :(
        • There is a reason for this

          The reason why that they were 3/5ths was not necessarily because they saw them as only being 3/5ths of a human, but rather they did not want the pro-slave south to have more power in congress. They wanted to revisit this issue latter and eventually get them freed. They had to deal with the reality that the Northern States did not have any power, nor ability to force an antislave movement upon the Southern states. If they tried in 1790, it would had resulted in 2 nations, not 1 big USA. Then Britian would had attacked again.
          By 1805, the USA and many European nations had made importation of new slaves in to the Americas illegal. They actually put US NAVY ships off the coast of africa to stop the slave trade.
          So please research history before attacking the founding fathers. They really did have a good heart but also had common sense to try to have a good Nation in the long term, safe from outside invasion.
          • A slave is not a free man

            And a free man is not free to vote his conscience.
            The real problem is that the 3/5ths rule was wrong on both counts; it was a compromise, and as usual, most compromises are terribel.
            Slaves shouldn't have ANY vote or representation, they are property.
            And people shouldn't be enslaved in the first place.
          • Exactly.

            It would be like Alaska wanting its bears and caribou counted in the census for Congressional representation, WITHOUT giving bears and caribou the rights of citizens (does the Second Amendment allow us to arm bears?). The Northern states, which had legalized slavery but few slaves, wanted representation based upon the total number of FREE people (although only adult males who owned land could actually vote). The Southern states wanted to include the slaves in the census AS IF they could vote, but of course they had no intention of allowing them to vote (and were, tragically, willing to fight a war to prevent it). One thing that is not mentioned in discussing this clause of the Constitution is the following phrase, "AND EXCLUDING INDIANS NOT TAXED." At that time, Native Americans were not considered US citizens, rather "foreigners." That is, even though the US was founded on land taken from the Native Americans, those natives were considered to be separate nations with their own citizenship rules and their own ways of governing, and thus they did not pay state or federal taxes (at least not directly).

            I wonder if history will repeat itself when we finally invent androids (robots, not phones)? I remember that Commander Data once had to defend himself from an unwanted transfer to Starfleet Labs; was he a silicon-based person, or only property of Starfleet?
          • It was a compromise to apease the southern colonies who depended ...

            ... heavily on manual labor.

            Sometimes one has to compromise (especially on difficult matters) in order to serve the greater good. (The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few ... or the one!)

            With the Civil War, institutionalized slavery came to an end. Had it not then, it would have during the Industrial Revolution, when machines became for cost-effective than manual labor.

            If only Congress recognized the importance of compromise to the democratic process, our government would again be functioning properly.
            M Wagner
          • Yet, you do not mention women, who were "free" but also ...

            ... could not vote. You cannot look at 18th Century realities through 21st Century lenses and make any sense of the compromises they made to forge a nation.
            M Wagner
    • NSA is spying on our financial and banking records

      Roger the ease with which Snowden got the info out proves this layer and levels of safety and control is all pure BS.

      Tell us about how the NSA's FTM (Follow The Money) and TACKFIN systems violates our banking and financial records and privacy.

      Tell us how NSA gathers the financial transaction data from thousands of banking companies around the world using the SWIFT platform.

      Tell us why 99.99999% of the population that have done nothing wrong still have their phone calls, SMS's, bank records, e-mails, web surfing, Amazon purchases, Google map searches, etc. etc. spied upon and the data carefully store away?

      Why don't you tell us how the NSA is big part of the internet backbone so that they only have to waste time with Google, Facebook, etc. on the odd occasion?

      David did you know that the NSA director General Keith-Alexander modeled his top secret war room to look like the bridge of Star Trek's Enterprise using American taxpayer dollars? It is a total replica with one exception.

      Instead of having the Federation's symbol he had it replaced with the enemy's symbol - the Klingon symbol.

      A recent profile of the top spy says that when he ran the Army's Intelligence and Security Command, it was from the captain’s chair of the Starship USS Enterprise.

      Just like in the Star Trek series, the doors of his so-called "Information Dominance Center" war room made a ‘whoosh’ noise as they opened and closed.

      Here is the man in charge of the NSA. The man making the rules and giving the orders.

      He has confused fantasy and science fiction with reality.

      His fantasy he forces on the world as our reality.

      The Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) has their fax machine down. The office that oversees the most powerful military in history (not to mention the best-funded $31.8 billion) is unable to project when its single fax machine will once again be operational.

      They estimate it will be working or replace in November.

      BS - they don't want any more FOIA request from people seeking the truth.

      They have funds to suck up billions of bytes of data a day but no money to receive a fax from a tax paying citizen. Can we believe them . . .

      Roger to quote you:
      . . . the NSA conducts its work with an uncompromising respect for the rules -- the laws, executive orders, and judicial orders under which we operate.

      Everything you and your handlers have made you say we cannot trust. Everything the government says we cannot trust. Almost everything the US and UK press says we cannot trust.

      Sadly this includes you David. You are not doing your research.

      Stay with shining new tech objects and leave the serious stuff that is turning the US in a 4th rate Magabe banana republic alone.

      The NSA takes what they want info wise and do not give us any in return except this drivel from you Roger.

      Roger and David it is time to read "WAR IS A RACKET" by Major General Smedley Butler. Google it - you can get it as a PDF download for free.

      David if you had done your homework you would know that the only thing that can now save the US from financial ruin is a full scale military operation.
      • And since government gets the sheer bulk of information from companies,

        that CHOOSE to track us, to scapegoat government is just a snoozefest in the making. Especially as many of these very companies have lobbyists and special interest groups to get all sorts of entitlements that come from our tax money.
        • Nope

          This is not how it works.

          There are those, who own both the Government (by providing them loans) and the larger corporations (surprise, by providing them loans). They also own NSA and the likes, by instructing their subsidiaries (government, corporations) to cooperate and provide funding for the geniuses at these agencies to play with shiny tools.

          It is these people, who decide who does what, not the corporations, not the government.
        • Companies TRACK US for commercial reasons. We don't onject ...

          ... because we think they are saving us money. By letting them track us, they have data which the government can "collect" for future use. The warrantless search is the problem. The government is asking companies to turn over data without a search warrant and, since they cannot be sued for not cooperating with the government, they have no recourse but to cooperated - or find themselves under undue scrutiny.
          M Wagner
    • Snowden

      Snowden is probably the greatest double agent in the history of digital espionage. Who else could have plugged into every country in the world with 4 computers controlled by the NSA?
  • I'm an American too

    The issue I have is that this data is available for someone to leak, ala Snowden. Who knows what damage he has caused with his information courtesy of the Russians and the Chinese. Why shouldn't I as an American have an expectation that I am not being recorded? The fact that your source is not " free to wander through all of NSA's collected data willy-nilly, snooping into any communication they please" is irrelevant. You shouldn't have the data!!!
    • We too are Americans

      Yeah, the implication runs sour. So was Bernard Maddoff, Lehman Brothers, AIG, Goldman Sachs, Fanny Mae... The trust is gone. Now you'll have to prove you can be trusted.
      • Himmler, Goering and Goebbels were Germans

        It didn't stop them from spying on, terrorizing or massacring their own citizens.

        If history is any predictor, it can happen here too, and it is more likely now than ever before thanks to drones like this guy who is "just doing his job."
        terry flores
    • JFK!

      You are worried about Snowden? Are you retarded or just that brain-washed and naive?