NSA: fear of a black van

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?
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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.

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