With allegations (and denials) of economic espionage and reports of broad access to cell phone data joining last week’s blockbuster revelation that the National Security Agency has worked to undermine encryption, it’s hard to keep up.
But Julian had it right on the jaw-dropping encryption news in his post last week, “NSA’s War on Global Cybersecurity.” A national-security-aimed attack on encryption systems that protect all our communications and data—our financial transactions, privileged communications with attorneys, medical records, and more—is like publishing faulty medical research just to prevent a particular foreign dictator from being cured. It is penny-wise and pound-foolish. It had been looking to me for a while like the U.S. government may be hoarding vulnerabilities and cultivating new attacks rather than contributing to worldwide security by helping to close gaps in vulnerable technologies. And now we have the proof.
Shane Harris’s excellent Foreign Policy article today looks at NSA administrator General Keith Alexander, calling him “The Cowboy of the NSA.” Fast and loose with the law, his folksy demeanor has allowed him to downplay the significance of his efforts. Meanwhile, Alexander and his “mad scientist” advisor James Heath have done anything they want—and lobbied for it adroitly—awash in taxpayer money. Harris reports:
When he was running the Army’s Intelligence and Security Command, Alexander brought many of his future allies down to Fort Belvoir for a tour of his base of operations, a facility known as the Information Dominance Center. It had been designed by a Hollywood set designer to mimic the bridge of the starship Enterprise from Star Trek, complete with chrome panels, computer stations, a huge TV monitor on the forward wall, and doors that made a “whoosh” sound when they slid open and closed. Lawmakers and other important officials took turns sitting in a leather “captain’s chair” in the center of the room and watched as Alexander, a lover of science-fiction movies, showed off his data tools on the big screen.
“He moved fairly fast and loose with money and spent a lot of it,” [a] retired officer says. “He doubled the size of the Information Dominance Center and then built another facility right next door to it. They didn’t need it. It’s just what Heath and Alexander wanted to do.” The Information Operations Center, as it was called, was underused and spent too much money, says the retired officer. “It’s a center in search of a customer.”
I find myself nonplussed by the glib reaction of some conservatives to this wanton bureaucratic behavior. Cracking the encryption systems that protect us all cannot be waved off as “the task we’ve given the NSA.” So I offer this framework for thinking about the NSA and its behavior: Secrecy is a delegation of power from elected officials to unaccountable bureaucrats.
This is not to deny that there is some need for secrecy sometimes, but, at the scope we’ve seen, secrecy has the same, and worse, effects as other delegations of power that conservatives and libertarians object to.