NSA: Problem is the secrecy, not the program

NSA: Problem is the secrecy, not the program

Summary: The problem isn't that the NSA has access to every single phone record and Internet session for every American citizen. The problem is they didn't tell us.

SHARE:
TOPICS: Security, Storage
13

Who in their right mind would believe that the massive new NSA data center in Utah was intended to only track overseas communications? We've been hearing about this kind of surveillance for years.

As I noted 6 years ago:

In the wake of 9/11 the government requested massive communications monitoring without legal authorization, which would have been easy to get. Only one telco, Qwest, refused after requesting, and not receiving, legal justification. That telco's then-CEO, Joe Nacchio, is fighting to stay out of prison after conviction on insider-trading charges, claiming on appeal that government retaliation led to less-than-expected results.

Whether you buy Nacchio's story or not it points up the danger to American liberty. A powerful executive branch, dependent telcos and a Congress - Ebay on the Potomac - running on "campaign contributions" from cosseted industries, and American liberty is on the trash heap of history.

Personally, I don't care if the NSA has access to my phone records and my Internet browsing habits. I am much more concerned that that access to that information be strictly controlled and its use legally constrained, with serious penalties for abuse.

Knowledge is power. And the abuse of power is one of the core issues and drivers behind our form of government.

Power is split between Congress, the executive branch, the judicial branch as well as the 50 state governments and numerous local governmental entities so that each element has someone looking over its shoulder to make sure, ideally, that it is behaving itself.

Which is the problem with the NSA's secrecy: because it's secret Americans have no idea how this information is being used. What safeguards are in place to control access. How the use of this information is legally circumscribed.

It doesn't help the NSA either. Someone claimed that over 100 potential terrorist plots have been aborted due to this program. If this is true, it is too bad that the NSA could not claim credit.

Of course the Obama administration will make the usual claims of national security and will, no doubt, pursue the leaker – who has done us all a great public service – to the full extent of the law. But in a free society an issue like this, which touches the life of every American, should be openly and loudly debated rather than hidden in the recesses of the national security community.

The Storage Bits take
The urge to escape accountability is a universal human trait. We do not help our democracy by carving out a huge exception for national security. Yes, some things need to be secret, but massive programs that touch every American aren't among them.

Did everyone in Congress and the security community honestly believe that such a huge program could remain secret forever? Then why even go down that road?

The obvious answer is: they were afraid that if the American people knew about it we wouldn't let us do it. Well, there's a price to be paid for living in a democracy.

That price is that in a democracy the citizens get final say. If, after robust debate, people decided that they would accept a little more terrorism in exchange for a little less surveillance, so be it.

It is the secrecy, not the program, that has created this firestorm. At some point, the national security community has to trust the citizens of these United States to make the decisions on such far-reaching programs.

Comments welcome, as always. For all that nattering about Obama as a liberal, he's only slightly to the left of Richard Nixon and most resembles a Rockefeller Republican, a now extinct species. And Joe Nacchio was sentenced to 6 years in the slammer.

Topics: Security, Storage

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

13 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • typo

    "current Republican administration"?! I'm sure that the President (and about half of the nation) will be surprised to learn that he's a Republican.
    kwagner_z
    • Me too!

      But as I noted he's a Rockefeller Republican. Most readers probably don't know who that was, but he was part of a long-standing Yankee Republican strain that is now extinct.
      R Harris
    • Not a typo. A Freudian

      slip. See, in his universe, it's evil Republicans that pull this sort of nonsense, not noble, selfless Democrats.
      baggins_z
  • If you trust a spy...

    What am I saying? Trust a spy? Are we out of our minds?
    Tony Burzio
  • Disagree

    Methinks when millions are being watched and billions of info collected daily -- the problem is both the secrecy AND the program itself.
    ReadandShare
  • Some power is not split...

    it is FORBIDDEN! That's what the Bill of Rights is for. Honestly, there are far too many weasels interpreting government for us...
    Tony Burzio
  • IF you are an American, and

    IF you are as outraged as I am there is only one course of action. REMOVE the legislators who voted yes to this illegal abuse of government authority. We the People do not approve of secret courts. Do it in the open, with citizen oversight or don't do it at all.

    This isn't Nazi Germany, this isn't the USSR, this is any other tyranical dictatorship! This is AMERICA. We shed our blood for the Constitution, not the criminals ignoring it!

    VOTE THEM OUT! ALL OF THEM! It doesn't matter if they voted for something good once, they betrayed us all and need to pay.
    timspublic1@...
  • Not as much as you might think.

    Tony, only unreasonable searches and seizures are prohibited. The debate should be on whether Americans believe that giving the Feds access to our call detail records and browsing histories is reasonable or not.

    If it is suitably controlled - and all this secrecy gives us no idea - I'm not against it.

    Robin
    R Harris
  • Blanket surveillance of all Americans

    is the very definition of an unreasonable search, for crying out loud. The fact that people are even defending this at all scares me more than the administration doing it. It has been said, and I fully agree with it: The nation can survive an Obama. It cannot survive a people who would willingly and knowingly elect an Obama. All the articles defending this wanton overreach of government proves the truth of that statement.
    baggins_z
    • Who elected Obama?

      Truthfully - who? Anyone care to put in a number for how many voters REGISTERED to vote let alone turned out to pull a handle in order to cast their vote?

      Americans I know say that it is "unconstitutional" to make them vote as happens in Australia but the reason this happened n the first place (I think it was 1928 but dont quote me on that) was because of the poor turnout here in Australia where mostly only city folk voted meaning the country guy just had to put up with whatever happened.

      Americans may be for or against Obama but as most dont vote, then most dont really have the right to complain about it. Every person in America who voted (and legally, I dont mean anthing rigged) has the right to complain about Govt. That would likely be less than 24% of their population.

      Oh and BTW what constitutes "illegal search" anyway? It was originally not an online concept. So can anyone say that listening to everything anyone says online, on a phone etc is really what constitutes an illegal search? I think the constitution needs to have some changes made, in USA, to allow for the modern day conveniences.

      In Australia, at least I know where I stand - my only constitutionally defended right is to complain about the Govt of the day. Nothing else!
      greg-w-h
  • Disappointing

    I am a big Obama supporter but I am really disappointed in him and his administration. Targeted assassinations, social issues and now this total usurping of his executive powers are all strong lessons for me in the future. I mean this is the guy that campaigned against stuff like this and now he is doing worst. At least we all knew where Bush stood.
    Abdulai Bah
  • Chicken Little's zombie, undead and well!

    The sky is falling!

    What the hell would the NSA care if a Yankee phoned his wife and she told him to get some milk on the way home? What the hell would they care if someone's wife called the guy next door to tell him that her husband had just left home so they can have a "get together"????

    If you yell, in any language in the world "Kill the President" or "Nuke L.A." or similar stupid things, the NSA will likely know about it with key phrase searches. In fact, they know about the same thing in emails. That is why, from time to time when you have the latest and best joke sent to you, you should send it on with a fake threat to nuke someone in USA so that the people in their "research centres" can get a laugh, too!

    So what can you do about it? Well, you can embed some nasty code in amongst all those threats if you know what you are doing and you are an anarchist....something probably already done many times. However, you could just send a joke now and then to them with your threats just to show there arent any hard feelings! ;-}

    .....or, like almost all of us, you could enjoy blissful ignorance. After all, how hard is it to put together a program you can give someone on a USB stick that decodes any email you send after you have used that same program to encode it? How hard is it to go through so many VPNs that you actually couldnt be traced unless you were a fool and stayed online 24 hours a day trying to do something naughty? How hard is it to go grey and convince some ISP that you are an uplink or downlink from them? All these things are really old tricks, too, ones well known. Heck, if you wanted to avoid being listened to by the NSA, then shut the hell up! They cant get you then!

    Most of all, enjoy the beaches while you can, take long drives and hold hands (though not between two moving vehicles ;-}) and remember to be alert but not alarmed, stay calm and carry on and DONT PANIC!
    greg-w-h
    • I honestly don't know what to say.....

      Look.
      Have ever heard of the concept of "The slippery slope"? This program, taken to its *logical* conclusion, will help to overthrow this republic.
      nbahn