Sunday, June 09, 2013

NSA is wrong, not evil

My twitter feed has gotten this one-sided view of the NSA. Soon, they’ll be claiming the NSA practices witchcraft and eats babies, because, as everyone knows, the NSA is evil. In truth, the NSA is not evil, just wrong. I point this out because there are two sides to every story. The better we understand the NSA’s point of view, the better we can fight them. Power corrupts: understanding this from their point of view will teach us how this happens.

In this post, I describe my first hand experiences dealing with the NSA, and what I understand from their point of view. I don't like the NSA, as you can tell from my other posts, but at the same time, I hate this "us vs. them" attitude that just because we oppose them, that we can impute all sorts of evil untrue attributes onto them.

The highest priority at the NSA is avoiding infringing on citizen’s rights. I know none of you will believe me, but it’s true. I’m regularly astonished by the degree to which they bend over backwards to protect American’s privacy. The more you delve in the phone metadata and PRISM details, the more you’ll find these extreme measures the NSA takes to avoid infringing on the privacy of Americans.

Many claim the NSA is just another agency, and thus will share the same faults found in agencies like the IRS, which recently targeted people based on their political beliefs. This is a terribly wrong comparison. The IRS hires people with high-school diplomas, the NSA hires Ph.D.s with military service. If anybody at the NSA used their position to further their political party, their fellow employees would be the first to point that out, and stop them.

The testimony given by NSA leaders, such as Keith Alexander and James Clapper, is not really a lie. Consider this famous testimony from Clapper during a hearing on March 12, 2013:

Senator Wyden: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”
James Clapper: “No, sir.”

Yet, as the June 5 story from the Guardian revealed, the NSA is collecting everybody’s phone records. Isn’t that obvious that Clapper is lying?

Maybe. The problem is more self-deception than lying before congress. Consider the hypothetical case where somebody goes to the NSA and asks for all records associated with person by name, such as “Robert Clayton Dean”. Sure, the NSA has the phone records, but they aren’t associated with a name. The NSA has the data in theory, but they can't get it in practice. Moreover, that database is largely inaccessible, controlled by the courts rather than the NSA. Even if the head of the NSA or the President himself demanded it, they would not be able to get those records without permission from the courts.

Clapper knows he’s being evasive, but he believes it’s the sort of evasion that is acceptable in politics. Because the NSA doesn’t have access to the data the way people imagine, he believes he’s telling the “truth” when answering that question. He deceives himself about the extent to which that surveillance endangers Americans. He's absolutely wrong, but I'm not sure how evil he is.

The lesson here is how power corrupts. Instead of arguing how Clapper lies and replacing him with yet-another-politicians, we should understand how this power corrupts all politicians in his position.

The rank and file of the NSA is not your enemy. They carry out the mission that politicians give them, and do not cross the line with an almost religious fervor. It’s the politicians who have moved that line. It’s every politician who voted to extend the Patriot Act and empower the FISA court that you have to fight. That doesn’t mean the NSA people are the good guys, it’s just that they aren’t the bad guys that you think they are.


Richard Steven Hack said...

Who the hell ever said the rank and file are the enemy?

No one.

It's like Ayn Rand once said about Nazi concentration camp guards. The fact that one brings flowers to his mother on Mother's Day doesn't make him any less evil.

It's the SYSTEM that is evil.

And yes, I mean evil (even though I don't usually qualify things as "good" or "evil" since those terms imply some sort of moral code, which I don't believe in.)

The purpose of these systems is to increase government power over its citizens for the pure purpose of power. Period. End of story.

It's NOT just "being corrupted". The people who put these systems in place, more specifically the people who order such systems to be put in place, are people who are interested in POWER - not "protecting America" or any of that patriotic crap.

Sorry, your article is precisely not one that helps understand the situation.

David Lockheed said...

I'm pretty sure that Edward Snowden just inferred that everything in accessible by name. It's called metadata, and this is what makes the intelligence gathering work, especially when persistent storage is used. Your views about government feelings on privacy indicate that you have not worked in any militarized branch. Mission first; therefore, privacy second.

allicient said...

"The highest priority at the NSA is avoiding infringing on citizen’s rights. I know none of you will believe me, but it’s true. I’m regularly astonished by the degree to which they bend over backwards to protect American’s privacy. The more you delve in the phone metadata and PRISM details, the more you’ll find these extreme measures the NSA takes to avoid infringing on the privacy of Americans."

You're right, I don't believe you. The NSA was well-known even during the late 90s to never delete anything and given the amount of data stored at that time, I shudder to think what's being stored now. It's the complete anti-thesis of selective monitoring.

Even if your assertion was correct, it would only apply to US citizens being monitored by US agencies and ignores that other governments may happily do that monitoring on behalf of the US, e.g. GCHQ.

Joe said...

This makes some points. I agree that painting an agency as "evil" gets us nowhere; the whole system is rotted, what with campaign finance, the revolving door, the other influences of corproations, the Terrorist Threat ideologies and propaganda (it's because we have military presences in 74 nations, stupid), apathetic culture, and bigots. We should juxtapose this article next to Glenn Greenwald's 2012 talk on how the surveillance state itself is the problem (not just individuals, not just individual policies) and what we can do.

Tom Cross said...

I'm concerned about the extreme lengths that I've seen people go to in order to rationalize the statement that Clapper made, which is plainly false.

The conclusion that there is, actually, a problem here is a much easier one to reach than the complicated reaching that I've seen.

The people who work in the NSA are certainly not evil, but they may be constructing something which could be used for evil by other people in the future, and may have been used for evil in the isolated cases in the past. The question is, what prevents that from happening, and the answer is effective political oversight.

That political oversight is not possible if the NSA doesn't feel that it needs to obey acts of Congress (which was Bush's position) or doesn't feel that it needs to be honest in official hearings, which appears to be Obama's position.

That is the problem, and if we let the intel community off the hook for it, the people will loose control over them, and if the people loose control over them, we loose control of the country.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you feel you’ve got nothing to hide and that a tiny increase in US security is worth your loss of privacy?

That’s the wrong question. The right question is: What data is being collecting about me, what conclusions are are being made from it, and how can I correct wrong data?

Example: The credit reporting agencies are required to tell you what data they collect and allow you to correct it because they make many errors that routinely deny credit to innocent people. Prior to the federal laws requiring credit reports, people who were denied the purchase of car or home had no way to find out why!

Do you think the feds will be any more accurate about the collection and evaluation of data about you than a credit reporting agency? They are collecting 3 BILLION pieces of information a day (according to one report) and if they evaluate that data correctly 99.9999% of the time, then they will be WRONG 30,000 times a day.

So; what if the next time you try to fly home for Christmas you find you are on the Do Not Fly list? And you have no way to find out why or to correct it…

So: what if your company hosts a website of interest to the NSA and it gets labeled a concern of state security (think Nixon and his now famous list) and the NSA tells the FBI that you are a ‘person of interest’ but not why? And again you have no idea that this is happened and no way of knowing how this will impact your life. Will you lose a job? Not qualify for a home loan?

Please take this up with your representatives now – or lose the right to do so forever.

Brian Pearce
Los Angeles
(you know my number already)

1d3n said...

I have a hard time believing you that the phone records are divorced from identity. What use are they when divorced from identity? How can they develop social network models without identities? This doesn't make sense and you don't support this with anything here.

Marco said...

The NSA does not need a court order to search the database it maintains of the call data surrendered by the nation’s telecommunications firms, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein told reporters on Thursday.

Anonymous said...

No NSA is evil I know

Dárvini Aranes Fook said...


Dr. Worden said...

The ethics of PRISM can be put in terms of lying, as evinced by Robert Clapper, Director of Intelligence at the NSA, before Congress. Kant’s critique of lying can shed light on whether Clapper should have lied. If he should not have, what are the implications for the republic from the compromised democratic accountability? See "The NSA Goes to Congress: Kant on Lying as Unethical"