The NSA Wants America's Most Powerful Corporations to Be Dependent on It

General Keith B. Alexander, its leader, sought unprecedented access to financial-industry computers. He hasn't gotten it yet.
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Reuters

The Washington Post profile of NSA director General Keith B. Alexander concludes with an account of a private meeting that he conducted a few years ago with financial industry officials. Talk turned to computer malware aimed at stealing customer data.

"His proposed solution: Private companies should give the government access to their networks so it could screen out the harmful software," the newspaper reports. "The NSA chief was offering to serve as an all-knowing virus-protection service, but at the cost, industry officials felt, of an unprecedented intrusion into the financial institutions' databases." They were "stunned" the story goes on, "immediately grasping the privacy implications of what Alexander was politely but urgently suggesting." Said one participant, "Folks in the room looked at each other like, 'Wow. That's kind of wild.' "

Alexander's proposal is just the latest example we have of the NSA aggressively reaching out to America's biggest, most powerful corporate actors in ways that ostensibly offer an upside of added protection against attack, but at a terrible cost: the extreme concentration of power in the United States. The federal government, Wall Street, Silicon Valley -- all are centers of power. In fact, entities within each sphere are powerful enough, on their own, to warrant constant vigilance. The NSA has constant access to troves of private communications. So does Google. I wouldn't bet that, 10 years from now, Google is going to launch a sophisticated blackmail campaign against America's ruling class. But if they wanted to, they'd have the data!

What ultimately restrains powerful entities is their separateness.

If Google tried to blackmail people, the federal government could arrest, prosecute, and jail the responsible parties. If national-security officials tried to mistreat Google, its management could marshal a substantial fortune, high-powered lawyers, and a far-reaching public platform to fight back. The same goes for Wall Street, Walmart, and the city of Walla Walla, Washington: America has countless repositories of power, some big, some small. And while that doesn't always prevent abuses, even serious ones, it has prevented us from becoming a society where anyone, whether a military dictator or the owner of a company store, has free rein to rule over regular people.

The diffuseness of power in America has long been a strength. But we're rapidly undermining it. I don't just mean that we're increasingly federalizing everything, and concentrating power in the executive branch, though we've done both of those things. What I mean is that, during the last two presidencies, a series of events, including the 9/11 attacks and the global financial crisis, have led to increasingly, uncomfortably close ties between Big Finance, Big Telecom, Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C. And apparently, Alexander is pushing for even closer ties, in the form of government eyes constantly inside of America's financial infrastructure.

Americans shouldn't trust any of these repositories of power. Government and corporations are both capable of terrible things. To have them colluding with one another in secret, inexorably arranging things so that there's disincentive for disagreement among them, is terrifying. The people can fight Big Government. The people can fight Big Finance. The people can fight Big Tech. Could the people fight them if they're all working together with secret law on their side? Booz Allen Hamilton is paid handsomely to spy on us for the government, then pours campaign contributions back into that same government, protecting their powerful financial incentive to have the surveillance state expand, something that is already a bipartisan cause. Five years hence, are Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and JPMorgan Chase going to be similarly invested in the expansion of the national security state? How about Microsoft and Google? AT&T? Under the umbrella of cybersecurity, is there any corporate player the NSA won't court or compel?

Alexander is no fool. He knows it is in his interest to make the NSA useful, even indispensable, to as many powerful corporations as possible -- that just as the military-industrial complex consists of public and private entities with a common interest in growing the state every year, so too could his surveillance and cyber-security complex, if he is smart in how he proceeds. 

"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex," President Eisenhower warned. "The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."

What do you think, my fellow Americans? Has the Obama Administration permitted the input of "an alert and knowledgeable citizenry" on these matters? Or has the swollen weight of the surveillance state been thrust on our chests before we quite understood what had been created?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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