NSA cryptanalyst: We, too, are Americans

ZDNet Exclusive: An NSA mathematician shares his from-the-trenches view of the agency's surveillance activities.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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