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The NSA and Our Great Surveillance Society

The most interesting part of watching the current debates over the NSA surveillance leakhas been the predictable reaction of the participants. On the far left and the far right, you can hear the Black Hawk helicopters and secret police banging on the cyber doors of America. From the Administration, you get a version of the teenager’s lament to his mother – “Well, I told Dad (read: the Congress) but not you (the Public), and he said it was OK.

Silicon Valley is trying to figure out how to sell the latest, “guaranteed-to-never-allow-another-break-in” software. The Intelligence Community is wondering what it can do to make a multi-billion dollar system secure from a bunch of angry 26-year-old male contractors whom it cleared to be system administrators – today’s code clerks. And former DNI Mike McConnell is wondering why he went back to Booz Allen to head the division from which whistleblower came. So much for Cyber Pearl Harbors.

After all the paranoia, insults and investigations, where are we going to be? Pretty much were we started. Welcome to the Great Surveillance Society.

The New Reality – You Are Never Alone in Cyber Space

Here’s your problem. We have the Internet, and it transfers information in the new dimension of cyber space. In the last ten years, it has become the primary form of communication and storage of information and data. It has unprecedented volumes of data and information passing through it and being stored every minute. It is not going away. Everyone is using it and everyone – 2 billion served and more coming –
can access it.

Every new communication medium has been used for two things – making money and seeking information by which to make money. I guarantee Guttenberg’s first effort was finding his customer base and selling them Bibles. It goes on today in cyber land. It is no accident how Amazon, LL Bean, Google, Facebook, and others send you those all-too-relevant e-mails and post ads to your page. They watch every bloody move you make through “cookies” and tracking IP addresses. Cyber land is our new public square – with surveillance cameras everywhere.

As for the U.S. government, it has the problem that no one in America wishes to be killed by terrorists. The 9/11 attacks traumatized a generation. It became clear that the bad guys were using cyber space to communicate and recruit. We needed to follow them there – and we did.

But cyber space is a huge and ever-expanding place. The issue of attribution – who is really sending the message – is still murky. We use the systems that Google and Amazon use to detect message traffic and track websites, etc. The Congress is informed about it to make it all legal, because while Americans may want protection from terrorism, they are untrusting of Big Government in many ways. It is part of the American psyche, from our Constitution to Rush Limbaugh, but a lot of Americans don’t trust their Congress either –about 90 percent according to some polls.

Mrs. O’Leary’s Cyber Cow

In the middle of all this comes our low-level system administrator at NSA, Edward Snowden. Hired and security cleared by the government to deal with the massive amounts of data that are being legally collected (rather quietly but again, legally), Mr. Sys Admin decides this gathering of data is not good and such efforts should be exposed. A classic American whistleblower based on generations of “righters of wrongs” in U.S. history. A small man against Big Brother.

Our Sys Admin guy – modern day code clerk – accesses and releases 41 pages of PowerPoint slides outlining the whole U.S. Internet and phone records collection system, thus leaving us where we are today, with media frenzy, renting of garments, etc.

A Great Roller Coaster Ride

The problem with roller coaster rides is you get off where you start. In today’s Cyber World, most basic challenges are not going to change.

First, the bad guys hide in ever-growing cyber space. As they now hunt us in terms of ones and twos and self-recruitment. We need to dig deeply into cyber space and as fast as possible.

Second, it is important to have a debate about how far we want the surveillance state to exist. But, if we do talk about that, we should also remember Amazon and Google are playing the same type of surveillance game and should be included in the discussion. Do we really want to stop them from making a buck and selling us stuff we want?

Third, no matter what kind of internal watchers and security you have on these web systems, someone is going to misbehave. If you want it truly secret, don’t put it on a system. But speaking from my old days of spying, you can get it via paper too. No one truly knows what goes on inside someone’s head, cleared or not.

Finally, and this goes back to good parenting and Mom, get over it. The Internet and cyber space are here to stay. The information we freely give away every time we get online is there for the asking and the taking. We live in the Great Surveillance Society, and we are here to stay.

Ronald Marks blogs on national security, domestic intelligence and national intelligence issues. Read More