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.

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