The United States National Security Agency has a bad and, I feel, an undeserved reputation. Popular media such as films (“Enemy of the State”, “The Simpsons Movie”, “Mercury Rising”), books (“Zeitgeist”, “9800 Savage Road”), and even computer games (“Perfect Dark”, “The Pandora Directive”) portray the NSA as a sinister, mysterious organization that works outside any rules or laws for its own ends, goals which are often in conflict with basic human rights. Nothing could be further from the truth. The mandate of the NSA is “to protect U.S. national security systems and to produce foreign signals intelligence information”, consistent with “U.S. laws and the protection of privacy and civil liberties”, as noted on their website. After all of the events of the last decade – 9/11, the attack on Google’s overseas operations, the increasing threat of computer viruses and worms – I don’t think anyone would argue that the United States does not need protecting against outside threats. It’s a dirty and, by design, a thankless job – much of what the NSA does has to be covered up in secrecy simply because if our nations enemies found out what we were doing to prevent threats against us, they could circumvent our protections and strike. We think nothing of providing legal and completely accepted ways for U.S. companies to protect their trade secrets from their competitors, but yet the NSA received endless flak for trying to protect their “trade secrets” from enemies that wish us very real harm.
It’s therefore a little surprising that news outlets are taking so much glee in reporting a “Big Brother” “spy system” that is currently being setup by the NSA (link: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/07/08/perfect_citizen/ ). Nicknamed “Perfect Citizen”, it is a $100 million contract designed to install monitoring devices in important national systems (power grids, nuclear facilities, water treatment plants) that can detect early signs of an impending cyberattack and act was a warning system. Reaction to this project is largely in the “mildly offended and morally outraged” camp. While many of the details behind “Perfect Citizen” are unknown, due to its classified nature, I would argue that – on the face of things – this is a very good idea. I’d like to argue for the successful initiation of this project.
First of all: out of sight, out of mind: I’m not a psychologist or sociologist, but I have some friends who are, and it seems that people who are not directly confronted with a problem tend not to think about that problem. We tend to obsess over things when we come face-to-face with them, and then forget about them when we’re focused on something else. If there is a constant flood of attempted attacks on our countries infrastructure, I really don’t want to know anything about it other than powerful forces are waiting and able to deal with the threats as they arise. It’s not a question of burying my head in the sand, it’s simply good time management – my worrying about cyber threats to our security and way of life will not help to solve those problems any faster, it’s simply going to decrease the amount of time and energy that I can devote to problems in my life that I can solve. By all means, let’s give those who are able to help us in this problem the power and capabilities they need to deal with the situation. Let them do their job – and this is, by definition, NSA’s job – and everyone can go on with their life.
Secondly: it’s just a name. I’ll admit, “Perfect Citizen” sounds a little Orwellian. I’ve read “1984”, and I’d agree that an all-powerful government monitoring our every move is ungood. However, that’s not what we’re talking about here. This project has nothing to do with private communications or behaviors, it simply monitors commonly shared systems like the power grid and detects behavior that would indicate an imminent attack on that system. If you are going to trust the government to setup and maintain national systems, you have to trust them to take appropriate steps to protect that system from our enemies. Does anyone not want our government to protect nuclear facilities and water treatment plants?
Finally, save your indignation for when it really matters. We do not have a perfect government or a perfect society. Outrageous violations of trust and privacy happen every day. We, as a people, need to be constantly aware of these things and need to bring them to national attention when they arise. However, there is such a thing as being too cautious – of crying “Wolf!!” a few too many times. Save your energies for those violations which really deserve your attention, instead of squandering it on a sensationalist topic such as this.
When founded, the NSA was commanded – by the President (exedutive order 12333) – to “collect…and analyze…intelligence information…to support national missions”. I’d say that they are doing their job, and that this is a good thing for the American people.