16 December 2013

And the NSA continues

Fuck Hoover. As the old joke goes. 

I had to watch that 60 Minutes segment mostly because I have less informed friends who would watch it and ask me questions, because they seem to know I follow this stuff very much more closely. So I'd prefer to know what was going on in their heads ahead of time or alongside. They have lives, so I can't say that I blame them. 

It was completely anodyne and came off very much as an ad for the NSA rather than a critical journalistic piece. But then, this is 60 Minutes, and good luck to anyone finding adversarial journalism there. Or as it used to be known: journalism. I don't have very much to say about the actual piece because nothing really controversial was actually discussed (none of the thorny legal questions came up as it was simply asserted it was in fact legal, none of the allegations that the program was used on various groups, reporters, or political figures came up, and so on). This isn't surprising. The only reason a high profile reporting group is allowed access to the NSA is because it is known they won't ask challenging pushback questions in the first place (or risk revoking their access). This is also why the piece included a 5 or 6 minute detour to advertise the NSA's cyberwarfare missions or how cool it is that they have a vault with broken codes from foreign countries, isn't that neat. And so on. Because if you're not actually going to cover any of the issues pressing against the NSA, it's kind of a short interview that needs such filler to it. 


The biggest problem I have with the interview was Alexander's closing argument makes no sense, at least to me. There's no demonstrated basis for how curtailing the various domestic surveillance powers and techniques of the NSA would in some way prevent detection of potential terrorist threats (imaginary or not) from bubbling up in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and so on. You know. All the places the NSA's mandate is pretty clearly not going to be impeded from operating. I have a hard time following how A affects Z here or maybe how 2-0=0. It's not a very clear bright line. It's just asserted that somehow their mission of monitoring foreign threats and governments (because it is a DoD operation) would be negatively effected if any of their existing powers and operations are shut down or reduced in any way. And that's the end of the piece. No where in the piece was it established that a) such foreign operations are being threatened with reduction, even by various NSA critics, or b) that such operations domestically help us investigate foreign threats of terrorism or sabotage or so on. Maybe if they hadn't wasted several minutes talking about vaults and code breakers and recruitment and solving rubik's cubes, we'd have some critical examination of that question. 
(also a minute and half is pretty slow from what I gather of rubik's cubes these days, there are lots of people who can solve any cube in seconds, and some who would do it faster than he did... blindfolded. So that's cute that 60 Minutes thought that would be impressive.)

I'd have to agree the haystack problem is insufficiently discussed. I think it's related to a question about "how does this actually work, you know, to catch bad guys", in so far as I'm highly skeptical that it does. But even the people advancing the argument that it does actually work, don't really seek to address this question of how to prevent themselves from drowning in information. It looked quite sterile and simple there on their demonstrations for the piece. And maybe it is. Surely there are very smart people who think on this problem.  But it's a very large problem with the approach of gathering this information in the first place and its a very large amount of information they are gathering. And to me, its not like the hits we have taken (the Boston bombing, the underwear bomber, etc), were either a) stopped, or b) sorted out from the haystack in time to stop them when in retrospect there appear to have been clues. You know like people shouting up and down that this guy is a terrorist. And not just people, but like a guy's own father. Things like that. I'm a little fuzzy on how that kind of information, reasonably solid normal human intelligence, can't be followed up with using tools like this kind of surveillance of gathering someone's metadata, checking phone and email, etc, but rather that the system must operate only in the other direction, to gather the metadata and be able to tell us afterward what a terrible person this person must have been. 


One of the major problems I have with that problem is that it also doesn't really tell us what they think the needles are. We could assume, perhaps mostly accurately, that these are needles of actual potential threats, potential terrorists or pirates or hackers abroad or attempting to attack us in some way. Or we could assume, as with the PATRIOT act, that these are powers that are available for use on terrorism, but which we have largely sidetracked to do other unrelated things (like go after drug dealers, which appears to be the most common use of the patriot acts various police powers, or the various Homeland Security provided grants that police departments get to militarize their forces). And maybe under a less scrupulous authority, if we for some reason still trust the current one, such powers might be used for less noble deeds. We could say that assumption that they will is foolish, or we could point out that they've done so before, investigating political rivals, political dissidents, potential communists, reporters, and that it's likely they're still doing it. 

For me it sidesteps the important legal questions, whether Smith actually applies to what they're doing, whether scooping up information on international data pipelines without a warrant is a violation of domestic surveillance laws (or at least an evasion of the spirit of those laws), to question whether it's effective or whether they're using it for explicitly non-terrorism related purposes in some kind of vast conspiracy. But given that many, many people seem quite comfortable to sidestep the 4th amendment and risk having domestic intelligence organs decide on whether or not you pose some kind of threat to national security, or at least some kind of annoyance for deciding to speak out and report against it, I have to deal also with the effect and strategic questions of just how valuable this kind of thing actually is. 


I'm still not satisfied that it helps. And neither are well-placed critics, people who used to be in the intel community or critics who sit on oversight committees, and at times even, the FISA courts themselves. So. Yeah. Thanks 60 Minutes for that 15 minute advertisement for the NSA. I'm sure some people are willing to go work there now. But you didn't really help us understand the terms of the debate, why it is happening, and over what. 


Update: It now appears at least one federal judge agrees with me, if not several on the FISA courts as well who are increasingly skeptical that the NSA isn't just lying to them flatly about what it has been up to with the authority they granted it. 
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