How do you fix a problem like the NSA?

So now that we’ve all estab­lished that the NSA indis­crim­i­nately col­lect­ing data on Amer­i­cans is not accept­able, how do we fix it? The answer, I sus­pect, is not as sim­ple as “just don’t col­lect on us.”

As I explained at length yes­ter­day, we the peo­ple, through our elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Con­gress, demanded that the NSA col­lect and ana­lyze data on our­selves. Here is a news story from 2002. Notice the focus on the NSA not col­lect­ing enough data?

Indeed, ana­lysts said the fate of the Sept. 10 inter­cepts points to a broader aspect of the post-Sept. 11 effort to improve intel­li­gence gath­er­ing: tech­nol­ogy ver­sus human beings. Even more than the CIA, the NSA has been crit­i­cized for fail­ing to put enough empha­sis on employ­ing enough skilled trans­la­tors and ana­lysts to deci­pher the infor­ma­tion it collects.

More peo­ple are say­ing things than we have capa­bil­ity to trans­late,” a senior intel­li­gence offi­cial said.

As a result, the NSA was not only empow­ered socially to do more, it decided to develop the means to auto­mate and stream­line its analy­sis meth­ods. This is where the plight of Thomas Drake comes into play. Drake, a for­mer senior exec­u­tive at the NSA, was involved in an inter­nal dis­pute between two dif­fer­ent auto­mated sys­tems that were sup­posed to make the agency more effi­cient at fil­ter­ing and ana­lyz­ing the vast amounts of data it ingested everyday.

Drake real­ized that the two pro­grams being tested were mon­u­men­tal wastes of money. They didn’t work. While his story — try­ing to tell his seniors at the NSA first, then Con­gress when that failed, and finally going pub­lic with the waste to a reporter — is tragic for many rea­sons, the key point here is that the NSA was try­ing, des­per­ately, to develop the capac­ity to col­lect and ana­lyze huge amounts of com­mu­ni­ca­tions data… back in 2001.

Clearly, they’ve made some advances. And after years of demand­ing the gov­ern­ment improve its capac­ity to spy, now that we have a sup­pos­edly work­ing sys­tem that can pull data from phone com­pa­nies and the largest tech firms, we don’t like it.

Okay, fine, the Amer­i­can peo­ple are fickle. That’s our right. So how do we fix this?

The NSA debate, in the broad­est sense, is not about secrecy or sur­veil­lance. It is about our polit­i­cal tol­er­ance of risk, our com­fort with author­ity, and our depen­dence on technology.

Our lack of polit­i­cal tol­er­ance of risk is arguably the worst instinct in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, more per­ni­cious than mere par­ti­san­ship and less obvi­ous than the racism dri­ving far too much cable talk show bick­er­ing. If a politi­cian is ever to advo­cate for a less aggres­sive pos­ture abroad, he is derided as being weak. If a Con­gress­man sug­gests lim­it­ing the pow­ers of sur­veil­lance, she is attacked for being soft on ter­ror­ism. When a can­di­date says we need to tol­er­ate more risk to our­selves so that we may enjoy free­dom, the elec­tion is lost.

We, as a coun­try, pun­ish those politi­cians who urge restraint, and we reward those who expand the pow­ers of the state. We should not be sur­prised at what we get. Despite the sup­pos­edly Amer­i­can dis­like of author­ity, the last decade we have demon­strated that we’re rather fine with expan­sive author­ity, and we’ll defend it at the bal­lot box.

At a prag­matic level, we are utterly reliant on the very tech­nol­ogy that allows the gov­ern­ment to spy on us. There’s noth­ing novel in this obser­va­tion: it’s almost a cliché by now (Evgeny Morozov’s book is a good sum­mary of this vul­ner­a­bil­ity). But we nev­er­the­less must grap­ple with it: we give huge amounts of our per­sonal data to tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies, who then mine is for adver­tis­ing dol­lars. Google reads your email, Face­book records your pho­tographs and instant mes­sages, Ama­zon knows all your credit cards. That sort of dis­clo­sure doesn’t bother us, even if the adver­tis­ing is irrel­e­vant, intru­sive, or unwelcome.

No, it is only when that data is handed over to the gov­ern­ment to look for clues about ter­ror­ism that we worry. It is a stance I gen­uinely do not under­stand. When Pres­i­dent Obama announced his desire to sum­mar­ily exe­cute an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen, the coun­try not only shrugged but openly sup­ported the deci­sion. Maybe it was his for­eign name, brown skin, or res­i­dence in a far away coun­try — I don’t know. But when a news­pa­per reveals the nine-year old news that the gov­ern­ment is also read­ing your email along­side Google’s adsense robots… well, then, the sky has come down.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t like any of this. But I also am under no illu­sions about it: this is a sys­tem we’ve cre­ated, and we are total hyp­ocrites to get angry at it only now when it might directly affect us in a per­sonal way.

So how do we change it? End­ing our reliance on tech­nol­ogy is unrea­son­able (you’re read­ing this on a blog!). But here are some ideas:

  • Stop pun­ish­ing civil lib­er­tar­i­ans in Con­gress. Vote for those who want to restrain the gov­ern­ment, and vote against those who want to expand it.
  • Accept risk. Accept that we will not have per­fect secu­rity. Accept that the gov­ern­ment can­not pro­tect you at all times.
  • For­bid the gov­ern­ment to issue secret legal rul­ings and secret laws. Restrict their capac­ity to pro­tect us, accept the risk that entails, and sup­port the trade­off between oper­a­tional effec­tive­ness and per­sonal liberty.
  • Push for the cre­ation of a more effec­tive court sys­tem. FISA courts approve some­thing like 99% of the requests they receive. There’s no way in hell 99% of the requests for sur­veil­lance are appro­pri­ate or legal.
  • Restrict the capac­ity of the gov­ern­ment to spy on us. That means restrict­ing their capac­ity to see threats early on. It also means, again, accept­ing more risk.

I’m sure we could all go on in this vein, but you get the idea. Frankly, most of these ideas are so ide­al­is­tic they bor­der on the naive. Even some­thing as seem­ingly basic as “get bet­ter courts” is viciously dif­fi­cult I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Apho­risms and catch-phrases are our ene­mies in this debate: the issues are seri­ous, and seri­ously com­plex, and need nuanced think­ing to ever alter.

The pub­lic debate is already reach­ing a fever pitch about doing some­thing to respond to this. I’m not very hope­ful we will see a con­struc­tive response to it.