Friday, July 05, 2013

Achille's Heel

So many electrons have carried the message that the NSA is vacuuming online correspondence with their PRISM program, that I choose not to bore you with the details here. Suffice it to say that in the realm of the 4th Amendment, the new boss is the same as the old boss. Overbearing, unrelenting, and unreasonable in his efforts to keep an eye on the people he serves.

When I voted for Obama, I had high hopes that I was voting for change, especially in the realm of intelligence gathering. I could not have been more wrong. After reading about Lesterland, at least now I have a clue why this surveillance state is gathering steam, even under Obama. Apparently, the top 0.05% income earners of the American population that finance 60% of electoral campaigns across this country are very concerned that the rest of us might be up to something. You know, like organizing political opposition to their vision of what kind of country the United States should be.

The enormous data-gathering efforts taking place to "find a terrorist" may be well-intentioned. They may even be effective at finding and rooting out terrorists. But there are a few problems that merit discussion. First, someone has to read and interpret that data, even if computer algorithms can find a good chunk of the terrorist communications that the government just knows it is going to find.

There is the other problem of NSA employee integrity. Can employees be trusted to leave celebrity data alone? Can employees be trusted not to accept a bribe for intelligence information on a political rival or to divert an investigation to someone else? Can employees be trusted to make honest interpretations that actually lead to real terrorists rather than innocent people? It might be worth the effort and risk for a Homeland Security employee to find a way to finger a rival or adversary outside of the agency. Having the power to lock someone up without bail or access to an attorney seems like it would be mighty tempting for a grumbling employee.

While the problems and questions above could use more scrutiny and public debate, there is one question that seems absent from the mainstream press: Can the federal government keep the data they collect safe from adversaries like foreign governments? How about groups like Anonymous and Lulzsec?

Given the success of Anonymous in breaching security in a variety of contexts and with a wide range of groups and individuals, I'm going to place low odds that the Federal government will be able to protect their treasure trove of information resulting from intelligence gathering. The political, military and commercial value of that information provides an enormous temptation for foreign governments and loosely associated opposition groups. Anonymous seems to have a penchant for turning in really bad guys and fighting for freedom and justice so they may actually be an ally for the people in this struggle for personal freedom and privacy on the Internet.

Certain foreign governments would take delight in capturing information collected by the NSA. China has been caught breaching the security of various organizations and absconding with the information they collect in what can best be described as state sponsored computer warfare. I think it's only a matter of time before an organized campaign originating in a foreign country will succeed in breaching NSA security on a scale that cannot be hidden or denied.

Organizations like Anonymous have demonstrated ample skill at surveying and circumventing network security. They are clearly opposed to the surveillance state, so that could be a motivation for proving the government wrong. Worse, they tend to do datadumps that can embarrass a fair number of well-placed people.

Besides, it is well known axiom that no security system can protect against all threats. While it's not difficult to believe that the NSA has employed numerous security mechanisms to protect the the information they collect, they most certainly cannot protect against all possible attacks. Over time, that risk will grow as technically superior opposition groups test that security and eventually find a hole. To put this in perspective, I have more trust in Amazon and Google to protect my data than the NSA.

Maybe it's just me, but I don't think the government is who we should be worried about when it comes to the use of the information stored in the NSA. I think we should be more concerned about whether or not the government can protect that information from unauthorized access.
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