How the NSA Threatens National Security

Our choice isn't between a digital world where the agency can eavesdrop and one where it cannot; our choice is between a digital world that is vulnerable to any attacker and one that is secure for all users.
Powerful systems are too easily abused. A scene from the McCarthy hearings. (Wikimedia Commons)

Secret NSA eavesdropping is still in the news. Details about once secret programs continue to leak. The Director of National Intelligence has recently declassified additional information, and the President's Review Group has just released its report and recommendations.

With all this going on, it's easy to become inured to the breadth and depth of the NSA's activities. But through the disclosures, we've learned an enormous amount about the agency's capabilities, how it is failing to protect us, and what we need to do to regain security in the Information Age.

First and foremost, the surveillance state is robust. It is robust politically, legally, and technically. I can name three different NSA programs to collect Gmail user data. These programs are based on three different technical eavesdropping capabilities. They rely on three different legal authorities. They involve collaborations with three different companies. And this is just Gmail. The same is true for cell phone call records, Internet chats, cell-phone location data.

Second, the NSA continues to lie about its capabilities. It hides behind tortured interpretations of words like "collect," "incidentally," "target," and "directed." It cloaks programs in multiple code names to obscure their full extent and capabilities. Officials testify that a particular surveillance activity is not done under one particular program or authority, conveniently omitting that it is done under some other program or authority.

Third, U.S. government surveillance is not just about the NSA. The Snowden documents have given us extraordinary details about the NSA's activities, but we now know that the CIA, NRO, FBI, DEA, and local police all engage in ubiquitous surveillance using the same sorts of eavesdropping tools, and that they regularly share information with each other.

The NSA's collect-everything mentality is largely a hold-over from the Cold War, when a voyeuristic interest in the Soviet Union was the norm. Still, it is unclear how effective targeted surveillance against "enemy" countries really is. Even when we learn actual secrets, as we did regarding Syria's use of chemical weapons earlier this year, we often can't do anything with the information.

Ubiquitous surveillance should have died with the fall of Communism, but it got a new—and even more dangerous—life with the intelligence community's post-9/11 "never again" terrorism mission. This quixotic goal of preventing something from happening forces us to try to know everything that does happen. This pushes the NSA to eavesdrop on online gaming worlds and on every cell phone in the world. But it's a fool's errand; there are simply too many ways to communicate.

We have no evidence that any of this surveillance makes us safer. NSA Director General Keith Alexander responded to these stories in June by claiming that he disrupted 54 terrorist plots. In October, he revised that number downward to 13, and then to "one or two." At this point, the only "plot" prevented was that of a San Diego man sending $8,500 to support a Somali militant group. We have been repeatedly told that these surveillance programs would have been able to stop 9/11, yet the NSA didn't detect the Boston bombings—even though one of the two terrorists was on the watch list and the other had a sloppy social media trail. Bulk collection of data and metadata is an ineffective counterterrorism tool.

Not only is ubiquitous surveillance ineffective, it is extraordinarily costly. I don't mean just the budgets, which will continue to skyrocket. Or the diplomatic costs, as country after country learns of our surveillance programs against their citizens. I'm also talking about the cost to our society. It breaks so much of what our society has built. It breaks our political systems, as Congress is unable to provide any meaningful oversight and citizens are kept in the dark about what government does. It breaks our legal systems, as laws are ignored or reinterpreted, and people are unable to challenge government actions in court. It breaks our commercial systems, as U.S. computer products and services are no longer trusted worldwide. It breaks our technical systems, as the very protocols of the Internet become untrusted. And it breaks our social systems; the loss of privacy, freedom, and liberty is much more damaging to our society than the occasional act of random violence.

Presented by

Bruce Schneier is a correspondent for The Atlantic and the chief technology officer of Co3 Systems, a computer-security firm. A security and technology specialist, his latest book is Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust That Society Needs to Thrive.

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