The NSA and security agencies from other countries are shooting for total surveillance, for complete protection against terrorism and other crimes. This creates the potential for too much knowledge falling one day in the wrong hands.
An NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, takes it upon himself to gather a mountain of secret internal documents that describe our surveillance methods and targets, and shares them with journalist Glenn Greenwald. Since May of this year, Greenwald has provided us with a trickle of Snowden's revelations... and our elected officials, both here and abroad, treat us to their indignation.
What have we learned? We Spy On Everyone.
We spy on enemies known or suspected. We spy on friends, love interests, heads of state, and ourselves. We spy in a dizzying number of ways, both ingenious and disingenuous.
(Before I continue, a word on the word "we". I don't believe it's honest or emotionally healthy to say "The government spies". Perhaps we should have been paying more attention, or maybe we should have prodded our solons to do the jobs we elected them for... but let's not distance ourselves from our national culpability.)
You can read Greenwald's truly epoch-making series On Security and Liberty in The Guardian and pick your own approbations or invectives. You may experience an uneasy sense of wonder when contemplating the depth and breadth of our methods, from cryptographic and social engineering exploits (doubly the right word), to scooping up metada and address books and using them to construct a security-oriented social graph.
We manipulate technology and take advantage of human foibles; we twist the law and sometimes break it, aided by a secret court without opposing counsel; we outsource our spying by asking our friends to suck petabytes of data from submarine fiber cables, data that's immediately combed for keywords and then stored in case the we need to "walk back the cat".
[caption id="attachment_5872" align="alignnone" width="559"] Sunday's home page of the German site Die Welt[/caption]
The reason for this panopticon is simple: Terrorists, drugs, and "dirty" money can slip through the tiniest crack in the wall. We can't let a single communication evade us. We need to know everything. No job too small, no surveillance too broad.
As history shows, absolute anything leads to terrible consequences. In a New York Review of Books article, James Bamford, the author of noted books on the NSA, quotes Senator Frank Church who, way back in 1975, was already worried about the dangers of absolute surveillance [emphasis mine]:
"That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left, such [is] the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn't matter. There would be no place to hide. If this government ever became a tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back, because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology.... I don't want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return."
From everything we've learned in recent months, we've fallen into the abyss.
We've given absolute knowledge to a group of people who want to keep the knowledge to themselves, who seem to think they know best for reasons they can't (or simply won't) divulge, and who have deemed themselves above the law. General Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, contends that "the courts and the policy-makers" should stop the media from exposing our spying activities. (As Mr. Greenwald witheringly observes in the linked-to article, "Maybe [someone] can tell The General about this thing called 'the first amendment'.")
Is the situation hopeless? Are we left with nothing but to pray that we don't elect bad guys who would use surveillance tools to hurt us?
I'm afraid so.
Some believe that technology will solve the problem, that we'll find ways to hide our communications. We have the solution today! they say: We already have unbreakable cryptography, even without having to wait for quantum improvements. We can hide behind mathematical asymmetry: Computers can easily multiply very large numbers to create a key that encodes a message, but it's astronomically difficult to reverse the operation.
Is it because of this astronomic difficulty — but not impossibility — that the NSA is "the largest employer of mathematicians in the country"? And is this why "civilian" mathematicians worry about the ethics of those who are working for the Puzzle Palace?
It might not matter. In a total surveillance society, privacy protection via unbreakable cryptography won't save you from scrutiny or accusations of suspicious secrecy. Your unreadable communication will be detected. In the name of State Security, the authorities will knock on your door and demand the key.
Even the absence of communication is suspect. Such mutism could be a symptom of covert activities. (Remember that Bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad was thoroughly unwired: No phones, no internet connection.)
My view is that we need to take another look at what we're pursuing. Pining for absolute security is delusional, and we know it. We risk our lives every time we step into our cars — or even just walk down the street — but we insist on the freedom to move around. We're willing to accept a slight infringement on our liberties as we obey the rules of the road, and we trust others will do the same. We're not troubled by the probability of ending up mangled while driving to work, but the numbers aren't unknown (and we're more than happy to let insurance companies make enormous profits by calculating the odds).
Regarding surveillance, we could search for a similar risk/reward balance. We could determine the "amount of terror" we're willing to accept and then happily surrender just enough of our privacy to ensure our safety. We could accept a well-defined level of surveillance if we thought it were for a good cause (as in keeping us alive).
Unfortunately, this pleasant-sounding theory doesn't translate into actual numbers, on either side of the equation. We have actuarial tables for health and automotive matters, but none for terrorism; we have no way of evaluating the odds of, say, a repeat of the 9/11 terrorist attack. And how do you dole out measures of privacy? Even if we could calculate the risk and guarantee a minimum of privacy, imagine that you're the elected official who has to deliver the message:
In return for guaranteed private communication with members of your immediate family (only), we'll accept an X% risk of a terrorist attack resulting in Y deaths and Z wounded in the next T months.
In the absence of reliable numbers and courageous government executives, we're left with an all-or-nothing fortress mentality.
Watching the surveillance exposition unfold, I'm reminded of authoritarian regimes that have come and gone (and, in some cases, come back). I can't help but think that we'll coat ourselves in the lubricant of social intercourse: hypocrisy. We'll think one thing, say another, and pretend to ignore that we're caught in a bad bargain.