Six Lines

We Need the Rest of the Story

Posted by Aaron Massey on 17 Sep 2013.

They say there are two sides to every story. The recent revelations about the NSA’s involvement with domestic data collection are not an exception. There are at least two, and likely many more than two, sides to that story. For the most part, we’re not going to get to hear one of those sides: the NSA’s side. It’s unlikely that all the rationale leading to these leaks will be revealed, whether because of a cover up or an attempt to preserve some legitimate national secrets. Obscurity can provide some legitimate security. The truth is probably a mix of both to one degree or another. Regardless, we’re simply not going to get the whole story from the NSA.

It’s rare that NSA employees speak publicly. This is why stories like Roger Barkan’s plea that “we, too, are Americans” are worth considering seriously. Not everyone at the NSA was involved in the decisions leading to Snowden’s whistleblowing. Frankly, if parts of the Snowden leaks are accurate, then some folks the NSA has earned a lot of the criticism that’s leveled at it, but the average employee didn’t have much input into those decisions. The big decisions, like say building a giant data center in Utah, don’t require approval from middle managers or engineers.

That’s not to say that I agree with everything in Barkan’s article. I don’t. I also suspect that I disagree with a lot of the rank-and-file employees at the NSA on policy matters. Of course, I disagree with the political views people have held at every place I’ve ever worked in my professional life. That’s the nature of policy.

Let’s examine Barkan’s article in detail, and I’ll give some of my reactions in an attempt to differentiate between a policy disagreement and an empathetic understanding of Barkan’s situation. Barkan starts off with this:

As someone deep in the trenches of NSA, where I work on a daily basis with data acquired from these programs, I, too, feel compelled to raise my voice. Do I, as an American, have any concerns about whether the NSA is illegally or surreptitiously targeting or tracking the communications of other Americans?

The answer is emphatically, “No.”

Arguments from authority aren’t good enough for civil liberties. We need checks and balances.

We’re not watching you. We’re the ones being watched.

If the revelations are true, then the NSA is collecting quite a bit of our personal communications information. Of course, the NSA is watching their employees to a greater extent. That’s part of working at the NSA. If I wanted to be super-snarky about this, I would argue that Snowden’s revelations are proof that the NSA should have been watching their employees even more than they were. That may be a bit unfair though. Insider threats are always more difficult to protect against. In a very real sense, they are more of a “when?” or a “how much?” than an “if.”

Further, NSA’s systems are built with several layers of checks and redundancy to ensure that data are not accessed by analysts outside of approved and monitored channels.

Great! What are they? At some level, citizens are going to need to be able to verify these checks and balances through some means other than hearing NSA employees say “Trust me. There are checks and balances.” We need to trust, but verify. This is effectively the core of the debate, and we’ll return to it in a bit.

We have more than enough to keep track of – people who are actively planning to do harm to American citizens and interests – than to even consider spending time reading recipes that your mother emails you.

This is a variant of the “Nothing to Hide” argument. I don’t trust it from a policy perspective. Again, we need real checks and balances.

There’s no doubt about it: We all live in a new world of Big Data.

This is a variant of the “Privacy is Dead. Get over it.” argument. I don’t believe that either. Privacy has changed, and protecting it will look different. Still, government officials can’t simply cry “Big Data!” and collect all communications everywhere. Barkan appears to agree with this, but his protestations that there are “oversight and compliance practices” ring hollow to me. It’s not that I don’t believe they exist. I believe they do. It’s that they are opaque. I don’t know what those rules are, and apparently neither do groups that I trust, like the CDT, EFF, EPIC, or the ACLU.

Like President Obama, my Commander-in-Chief, I welcome increased public scrutiny of NSA’s intelligence-gathering activities.

I would guess that most employees of the NSA agree with this. The big question is whether the public will get meaningful scrutiny of the NSA’s intelligence-gathering activities. Again, this must be one of the most frustrating parts of working there and not being able to talk publicly about these stories.

As this national dialogue continues, I look to the American people to reach a consensus on the desired scope of U.S. intelligence activities.

This will require cooperation from the NSA.

My NSA colleagues and I stand ready to continue to defend this nation using only the tools that we are authorized to use and in the specific ways that we are authorized to use them. We wouldn’t want it any other way.

Great! I hope NSA employees can completely get behind this sentiment. I also hope that the American public learns more about what those tools are, how they are authorized, and the controls put in place to ensure they are only used in that way.

Checks and balances are fundamentally the core of the argument. This is where I am most sympathetic to Barkan’s protestations. He and his fellow employees must feel as though they are protecting civil liberties while ensuring national security. I am pretty sure the NSA has implemented checks and balances that are annoying for the NSA’s employees to deal with. I can imagine that if I were an employee of the NSA putting up with all these checks and balances, then all this news coverage saying that I could listen to anyone anywhere at anytime would be seriously disheartening, particularly knowing that I really can’t effectively respond. The problem is that the public simply doesn’t know whether those checks and balances are effective or just security theater designed to make employees feel like they are protecting civil liberties when in reality they aren’t.

I empathize with Barkan and other NSA employees that must feel like they missed the memo describing how to use the somewhat God-like powers of real-time surveillance attributed to them recently. I understand that the American public doesn’t have all the information that went into programs like PRISM. The information we do have is extremely compelling and I hope it results in a serious investigation. Still, drawing conclusions from the information we have thus far is both dangerous and unfair. We need some sunlight on these programs, because fundamentally, we only have part of the story thus far.