NSA: fear of a black van

NSA: fear of a black van

Summary: Most of us are good citizens. And yet. What if the government is listening in, or watching, or scanning, and some algorithm triggers an investigation and some quota-happy g-man decides to make one of us a pet project?


What are we afraid of, really? What is it about the NSA story that so pushes our buttons?

Most people, when confronted with those questions will express that their outrage is about their right to privacy, that government intervention is un-American, that spying is just wrong.

But that's not really it, is it?

What pushes our buttons is fear. We're afraid that something we do, something we say, or even the fact that we know someone will cause the full might and power of the U.S. government to descend down upon us and ruin our lives.

Most of us are generally law-abiding. Oh, sure. We might speed up to 66 in a 65-mile zone to get out of the way of a nutball driver. We might still have one or two MP3s from the early Napster days, but we've been buying all our music like good consumers ever since. We pay our taxes and while H&R Block might make an error, we'll pay any fees if we're required to.

Most of us are good citizens. And yet. What if the government is listening in, or watching, or scanning, and some algorithm triggers an investigation and some quota-happy g-man decides to make one of us a pet project?

You all know that I have a relatively special relationship with the U.S. government. I can't tell you the details, but I have seen things and given advice, and have certain privileges and responsibilities somewhat different from the ordinary citizen. And yet.

I talk about trigger-topics all the time. It's a key area of expertise. I write for a magazine called "Counterterrorism". I talk and lecture about cybercrime. I investigate Russian and Chinese activities. I talk about military and terrorist strategies. This is not just an interest: it's part of how I make my living.

This came to mind the other day when I got a call from my wife. I was at home, working, doing some research. Like most wives calling husbands, she asked the most innocuous of questions: "What have you been doing this morning?"

My answer: "Well, I'm running a simulation on what happens if a nuke were detonated on the ground here in Central Florida. It's really kind of small compared to an air burst. It's pretty clear why air bursts are more effective."

My wife's response was, "Oh, okay. Well, I'm on my way home. I just stopped to pick up a pattern for a dress I want to sew."

You see, my wife has long had experience with my strange life. Shortly after we got married, the phone rang one morning, and she answered it. She suddenly stared at the phone and in a rather quiet voice said to me, "Honey, it's the CIA. It's for you."

Like I said, I have a slightly strange life. I get calls like that. But the point is, as I was telling my wife about the nuclear simulation I was running, another dialog ran through my head: "What if someone is listening and what if they don't know I'm a good guy?"

Here's the story on the simulation. I found a fascinating article about the third nuclear core built for Japan in World War II. Since the second nuke did the trick, the third core was never used in anger. But there is still a story behind it, and Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science at the American Institute of Physics wrote it up.

Wellerstein has a bunch of fascinating articles on his site, but he also has a wacky nuclear detonation simulator that takes various nu-det parameters and applies them to mapping software. It was this tool I was playing with when my wife called.

This is part of what I do. I explore and curate resources, think about their implications, sometimes write about them, sometimes cite them, sometimes factor them into analysis or recommendations. For me, it's perfectly normal for me to be simulating a nuclear detonation at 10am and then dive into issues of Chinese espionage at 2pm.

But what went through my head that morning was "What if the algorithm doesn't know that?" What if someone (or, more likely something) is processing this call, sends it to an analyst, and that analyst thinks its hinky?

Will the black vans show up outside my door?

To be fair, I've had this thought before. When I was investigating White House email and discovered a severe security flaw, I had no idea if there was going to be a problem. Rather than worry about it, I reached out to some of my fed contacts and let them know what I found. But still, in the back of my mind... what about the black vans?

Personally, I'm reasonably sure I'm fine. So many people at various levels of the government know what I do and know I'm harmless. Many read my work, many have talked with me, many have been in a class or lecture I've given.

But that doesn't mean the U.S. government doesn't get carried away or do things that are heinous. And that's what most citizens are worried about.

Take, for example, the Japanese internment during World War II. This was one of the most irresponsible, heinous, horrible, racist over-reactions to security concerns a supposedly free nation could do. These people were ripped from their homes, their jobs, their property. In many cases, they never got any of it back.

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Franklin Roosevelt, in many ways one of America's most heroic presidents, was the one who unfortunately authorized the internments by signing Executive Order 9066 in 1942. He was in the middle of his third term, having been elected by 55 percent of the popular vote and 38 of the then-48 states. I'm sure that some of the people who voted him into his unprecedented third term never expected him to turn around and rip them from their lives.

This, then, is the problem for General Alexander (head of the NSA), for President Obama, for Congress, for Homeland Security, and the rest of our national security establishment.

Americans know we need to be protected from terrorist activity. That's the angle I've been taking with most of my NSA coverage. We know that protecting Americans from such activity in a land of open freedoms and lots and lots of people is very difficult.

But in the back of our minds, we also know that our government can lose its way, can get carried away, can do some pretty horrible things using national protection as an excuse. We know it, not because we imagine it as fiction, but because America has a history of doing some pretty execrable things.

We also know that our government is made of humans, and humans sometimes get things in their heads. There are over-zealous cops. There are over-the-top federal agents. Heck, we all know the stories of J. Edgar Hoover and his secret files.

So, when it comes to the NSA and the surveillance stories that keep coming out, it's not that we don't want the NSA to keep doing its job. It's that it freaks us out that, rather than doing its job, the NSA, the IRS, the FBI, the CIA, or even the Fish & Wildlife Service will come after one of us.

This is the trust that the President and the NSA must rebuild. It's not about metadata. It's not about PowerPoints or Edward Snowden. It's about whether or not we can trust our leaders not to abuse this new and extreme power.

Based on what we know of history, we can't give them that trust.

In order to keep the national security engine running smoothly, it's that issue. It's the fact that history shows an unfortunate pattern of the abuse and misuse of power under the guise of national security.

This is what President Obama and General Alexander have to overcome before the headlines start to tone down.

Either that, or some big celebrity has to do something so stupid or attention-getting that we all forget about the NSA completely. Wardrobe malfunctions will always trump national security.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

Topics: Privacy, Government, Government US, 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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  • Excellent acticle

    Wow David, you have managed to express exactly what I have been feeling about the whole NSA privacy news recently! I want all these organizations to be able to stop terrorism by whatever mean necessary, but at the same time I fear what else could happen with abuse of the system. It is such a gray area - its okay to look at these emails as long as certain identification keys are removed, but then if you do find something suspicious in an email stream how can you trace it back to find out if the threat is real or 'hypothesized'!
  • Silly Americans...

    There is no problem figuring out when the government can spy on you and when it can't. They need a Judge to agree. That's it. That's all there is. Anything else is FORBIDDEN. Let's try that word again class: FORBIDDEN.
    Tony Burzio
    • It's a good word, Forbidden; ...

      ... however, the current US Government, like so many past governments and rulers, no longer has credibility and the associated trust of the people. Words like "forbidden" are fine on paper, but like any administrative control, it is limited to the willingness of the governed to assert its sovereignty as outlined in the US Constitution. Unfortunately, the current majority of the governed in the US are ignorant and/or apathetic of the potential abuses that result from abuses of power. Silly Americans.
      David A. Pimentel
      • Problems, but no solutions...

        What do you suggest Americans do about it?
        • There ARE Solutions

          The problem stems from the fact that the servers are based in the US, and thus controlled by the US Patriot Act, US laws, etc. Check out: ForHisGlory.PrivacyAbroad.com for data security and secure email services. Their servers are based in Switzerland and not subject to those laws. It's your way to stand up and protect your 4th Amendment Rights!
          • Except

            The traffic goes through servers and networks within the USA. They can still tap it there as the original Snowden leak, the Verizon and other telecommunication companies all have orders to tap everything. And since it is communicating with a server outside of the US it is within the law.
            Do a trace route on the path to the server you wish to connect to and see if it goes through the US or one of the countries that also do the same thing. (UK, Germany, France, Israel, China, etc... partial list sorry.)
    • @Toni Burzo


      The question of secret courts, secret judges, secret authorities, secret intrusion into privacy etc. and the shift of power from democratic to bureaucratic institutions has been described already in the year 1914 by Franz Kafka in his novel "Der Prozess" ("The Trial").

      I understand that you lack the exquisite education of knowing Kafka, so you may esteem that I help you get this education. You can find The Trial in perfect English translation here for free: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/7849.

      BTW, I just wonder what makes you believe that 480,000 contractor staff plus 25,000 NSA staff all understand and respect the meaning of your "Forbidden". If only 0.1% of them write this on a sheet of toilet paper and do with it what people do with toilet paper, this is a staggering 500 people in key position who disregard the privacy of Americans and their allies.

      • re "@Toni Burzo"

        ...apparently more exquisitely educated to at least spell his name right...

        Damit zie wiessen Kafka? Was für ein Trottel Vermutung.
    • Political dissent

      I disagree with many of the government's policies, including PRISM, and seek reforms through the democratic process (yeah, that's another story). One database query, and I'm rounded up with other like minded individuals and shipped to Guantanamo bay to rot forever.

      The government has the power today to do it legally. That's why I'm more afraid of my own government than I am of terrorists.
      • Agree.

        The one thing that separates U.S. citizens from the rest of the world is our Bill of Rights. We have the right to bear arms. We have the right to privacy, protection from illegal search and seizure. We have the right to a fair trial. The government is violating rules that were created to protect us from their abuse. They gave themselves additional powers which we never approved and then they continue to violate even those restrictions.

        The last time a government took away guns, privacy, and fair trials from a formerly free nation, that government was being run by Adolf Hitler. Yet, time after time I see sheeple declaring that giving up our freedoms is justifiable in the name of greater safety. That's how Hitler convinced Germans to give up their rights. It was to make Germany "safer." Then, as it is now, this greater safety is an illusion which is constantly contradicted by real data being mostly hidden from the public.

        Look at gun control, for an example. It's a fact that we are number 3 in the world in murders. If you remove Chicago, New Orleans, Washington DC, and Detroit from our total, we would be 4th from the bottom in murders. Guess which 4 cities have the strongest gun control laws? You got it. The same 4. Yet, the morons in Washington (and sheeple all over the nation) still believe gun control laws would make them safer. By definition, criminals do not follow the law. Look at those 4 cities for proof of how well strict gun control works.

        In the same vein, spying on citizens is not going to prevent terrorist attacks. Anything that serves the purpose of the One World Order agenda will be allowed to happen, just like when Cheney confirmed the stand down order for the F-16 air strike on the planes heading toward the WTC towers. The power elite allowed it to happen so their minions in Congress could use the resulting panic to eliminate our rights to a fair trial, free speech, and our protections from government spying.

        Anyone who thinks it's fair to give up our rights in the name of safety should be loaded down with gold jewelry and dropped into the worst part of Chicago for an education. The police don't and can't protect citizens. They only solve crimes after they happen. Nobody else is responsible for your protection but you.

        If you don't protect yourself from both criminals and our abusive government, you may as well save everyone some time and prune the gene pool by tattooing "willing victim" on your forehead. This tattoo would apply equally well to anyone who believes that spying on citizens is ok, too. Just ask the pre-WWII free German citizens. Nobody plans to end up living in a police state run by a bunch of psychotics. It happens when citizens become lazy about protecting their rights.
        • Corrections

          "Look at gun control, for an example. It's a fact that we are number 3 in the world in murders."

          This is not correct. The USA is not even among the top 100 countries in the world when it comes to the intentional homicide rate. You have to arbitrarily exclude large portions of the world (the entire continents of Asia and Africa, for example) to place the USA in the top 50. Even excluding the entire continents of Asia, Africa, and South America, and every country in Micronesia and the Carribean only places us in the bottom half of the top 20.

          "If you remove Chicago, New Orleans, Washington DC, and Detroit from our total, we would be 4th from the bottom in murders. Guess which 4 cities have the strongest gun control laws? You got it. The same 4."

          The four cities in the USA which have the highest rates of intentional homicide are, in descending order:

          1) New Orleans, LA
          2) Detroit, MI
          3) St. Louis, MO
          4) Baltimore, MD
    • The state has no business collecting data on private citizens without

      probably cause in a free society. It doesn't matter if the information is commercially available or public, or whatever else. The fact that terrorists exist and want to do us harm is not probable cause to snoop every American.

      What the NSA is doing should scare the hell out of everyone. Just like the gestapo tactics employed by a militarized police in Boston when they were hunting for the pressure cooker bombers should have scared everyone to death. That, combined with a pattern of IRS intimidation against political opponents is screaming at you: Police State.
    • The Patriot Act allows the Executive Branch to BYPASS the FISA court ...

      ... whenever it pleases. And the Patriot Act FORBIDS a citizen to sue a company who allows the government to take personal information WITHOUT a Search Warrant.

      The Patriot Act has removed the most important protection we have and, since the Supreme Court does not have Original Jurisdiction on Legislation, someone would have to sue the government over the Patriot Act for the Supreme Court to ever hear the case. Oh! Wait! The Patriot Act FORBIDS citizens to file suit.
      M Wagner
  • NSA

    No one likes anyone looking over his shoulder: especially when the person looking is a known criminal.
  • It's all about a lack of trust

    First David, thanks for understanding.

    I’m more concerned about the person who comes up with an idea to produce and distribute (nearly) free energy, or the person who discovers a simple cure for cancer. Since it has been extremely well documented that both of these examples have occurred many times in the past, one needs to look deeper into what mechanism that has kept these inventions from reaching the public.

    Money is power and money rules.

    If a multitrillion dollar energy or pharmaceutical industry were to discover that a group or individual had come up with an invention that would put one or more of these industries out of business what would they do? History has already spoken many times on this topic this and it hasn’t been pretty. These new technologies would never see the light of day.

    Is it unrealistic that these multi-trillion dollar industries have insiders within the intelligence communities and monitor for threats against their empires by monitoring everyone for relevant keywords? Who then become the targets? In this case the targets for termination are those who are most interested in helping humanity. Believe me, humanity would not be in the state that it is currently in if this were not the case.

    The real problem in many people’s minds is the issue of trust. In a world where money rules, everyone should be perfectly justified in not trusting a secretive power elite who claim to care for their interest while having been shown to have committed false flag operations many times before. Didn’t the CIA just go public recently with their involvement in overthrowing the democratically elected country of Iran in 1953, only to turn it into an enemy today? Certainly the false story of the Gulf of Tonkin incident has now been fully declassified and had been shown to have never happened. All that story did was get us in to a long drawn out was. And while I am on a roll, what ever happened to those weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

    Yes my friends J. Edgar Hoovers’ legacy is still alive and well. Are we supposed to trust without verification?
    • Another typo, and Kudos to David

      Long drawn out war - "not long drawn out was".

      I don't know why I don't reread this stuff before I post it.

      Kudos on your initial summary David. It is the false positives as well as the perceived corruption that is of concern.

      This is specifically directed to the inevitable comment by someone "well I don't have anything to hide - so what's the problem?."
    • But Trust is earned

      and unless you have been living under a rock for the past 15 years you will know that trust has not been earned.

      I know you feel it's intrusive (hard to justify that, when you did not know about it !!), (how can it be secret and intruding ? (or intrusive) )

      Fact is terrorist bombing and acts happen every other day now days, somewhere, sure not so much on US soil !! but why might that be ??

      Could that have something to do with the efforts to help ensure it does not ?

      I am sure the author here knows all about 'soft' and 'hard' targets, and just possibly these efforts help make the US less of a soft target and more of a hard target.

      Is there a price to be paid for that ?? Yes, so you can certainly debate if that price is too high. I personally think that knowing you might be listened too is not that high a price.

      The US Government in all it's arms are Constitutionally bound to provide freedom from tyranny and to protect it's people.

      To NOT do it would be unconstitutional, and irresponsible.
      • Trust has failed

        “The US Government in all its arms are Constitutionally bound to provide freedom from tyranny and to protect its people."

        The problem is that there is serious doubt that protecting the American public is what they are actually doing. If in fact the intent was to protect the people, more power to them. However, again and again it has been shown that that is NOT what they are doing. Millions are now aware of this but sadly millions are still sitting in the dark.

        We were forewarned of 911 by many countries and it was ignored. We were forewarned of Boston and it was ignored. The list is near infinite. These incidents serve those who profit from the fear and the ensuing wars. Listen to Sibel Edmonds – the most gagged intelligence operative in history. She is just one example of many who have come forth to tell their ‘inside’ stories.

        I am sorry that you still believe the big Lie.
    • Heck it isn't even that complicated

      Every single id10t at the NSA has "his personal" worldview and I guarantee you that it will disagree with yours on some important parts.

      The difference between you and the NSA is that people in the NSA can actively influence which ideas and worldviews get promoted or suppressed.

      All that is necessary is cherry-picking of data and boom your name is on a list, you might get raided, you might get killed, you might get harassed seemingly randomly, the possibilities are endless.

      The DHS and NSA have endless funds, time, and resources to make your life miserable and they will...
  • Better approach...

    This statement caught me as naive...

    > So many people at various levels of the government know what I do and know I'm harmless.

    Our government is so incredibly vast and incompetent at this point that I don't think anyone is really safe.

    Since 9/11 our government has decided that the only solution to preventing terrorism is the creation of a police state. I'd rather we instead stop doing the wrong thing. Stop supporting dictators (Saudi Arabia, China, etc), stop taking stands like we are in Syria...that it's ok for THOUSANDS of people to be slaughtered as long as the method of death isn't gas poisoning. The best way to prevent terrorism is to revamp our incoherent foreign policy.