How Star Trek Explains the NSA

Deep Space Nine features Section 31, a mysterious intelligence agency and special-ops team that, when you squint, resembles the U.S. National Security Agency in its opacity.
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Star Trek has a pretty good track record of forecasting the future. Cell phones, tablets, augmented-reality visors. But who would have thought that the franchise's darkest vision would be the next to come true?

The original series, featuring Captain Kirk, is perhaps best known for its utopianism—imagining a universe where materialism has given way to altruism, political self-determination, and a postracial society. The show's successor, The Next Generation, envisions matter and energy as freely convertible, and capitalism is regarded as a distasteful artifact of the 20th century.

But that model gets turned on its head in one of Star Trek's most popular series, Deep Space Nine. The show is set in the midst of a galactic war in which terrorism makes an appearance, alliances are broken, and many of the values that held Kirk's Federation together are threatened from within. As a part of the new, darker era, the show's producers created Section 31, an intelligence agency and special-operations outfit that's nominally controlled by the Federation but operates independently of it.

You might call Section 31 the Federation's id. Its mandate is to defend the Federation from any and all threats, at any price. Kidnapping, deception, manipulation—even genocide—are all acceptable instruments in Section 31's toolbox.

"The Federation claims to abhor Section 31's tactics, but when they need the dirty work done, they look the other way," says Odo, one of the characters on Deep Space Nine. "It's a tidy little arrangement, wouldn't you say?"

There are caveats, but it's not a stretch to say now that we're living DS9, or some form of it. The revelation that the National Security Agency is scooping up every American's e-mails, photographs, videos, voice-over-IP calls, and more from telcos such as Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon but also from nine major tech companies including Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Facebook, and possibly from credit-card companies as well—all in the name of protecting America—strikes many as a subversion of U.S. values and of the authority the public thought it was granting its government in the wake of 9/11.

There are caveats, but it's not a stretch to say now that we're living DS9, or some form of it.

Likely if Section 31 were disclosed to the broader Federation, the outfit would be shuttered immediately (or maybe not, considering how powerful its key members are). While there's no chance that NSA will be closed, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has vowed to introduce legislation paring back some of the laws that enabled NSA to create its electronic domestic surveillance program.

Another difference between DS9 and our world is that NSA is at least theoretically checked by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, whereas Section 31 is entirely unaccountable to anyone—not Starfleet Intelligence, not Starfleet Command, not the Federation Council.

Still, the process by which the FISC oversees the NSA's surveillance requests is itself opaque. The public gets little more than annual reports on individual subpoenas submitted under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Of course, any post about Star Trek demands that we take the analogy to its furthest point. Who are the Klingons in this drama? Who's our Odo? Our Sisko?

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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