In light of the National Security Agency’s Prism program being called into public view from the dark crevices of classified information, government secrets, and other inherently non-transparent activities, I wanted to discuss a few points and introduce some thought on the matter. The purpose of this article is to discuss some commonly held views on the issue, as well as to introduce some talking points identifying the true issues at stake: privacy, security, and politics.

The Power of Failure?

Arguments have been made that if the NSA Prism program – and countless others the public will never know about due to their criticality to national security, protection of sources and methods, etc. – were so top-notch, the US wouldn’t have experienced recent terror attacks like those that struck in Boston, Detroit (underwear bomber), or Fort Hood (to name a few).

That argument warrants further examination. What about the countless other terror attacks that have been identified and thwarted prior to execution? You’re thinking, “good question. Surely there must have been others. Why don’t we know more? Is the government withholding information from us?” Yes and no. On one hand, the government is continuously conducting intelligence operations in conjunction with a number of assets purposed with finding, fixing, tracking, targeting, engaging, and assessing terror threats across the globe. The inherently dangerous and sensitive nature of these operations is enough to warrant tight lips, little media attention, and limited public knowledge of successful missions. On the other hand, the government’s ability to conduct these operations comes with a price: public transparency.

You Win Some, You Lose Some

Let’s look at a few examples that demonstrate this situation. In the Intelligence Community and policy-making arenas, the failures are known to all and the successes only to a few. Research a few major intelligence failures we’ve experienced in recent U.S. history alone: Pearl Harbor, the Bay of Pigs, the Tet Offensive, the collapse of the USSR, 9/11, or Benghazi (don’t even get me started on this one). In all of these events, the points of failure in various levels of leadership, decision-making, and intelligence-information fusion was not properly identified, leading to massive events that were embarrassing and devastating for all parties involved, namely the United States.

It is critical to understand when using intelligence failures as an argument that it’s exceptionally difficult to predict with any amount of certainty where an attack will take place to begin with (we’re watching the entire world, no easy feat) – let alone when dealing with “homegrown” terrorists who are already American citizens and living peacefully in the US (until the time of the attack). That being said, there are usually indicators present, but those are easy to miss when handling terabytes of information on a day-to-day basis. As a whole, the U.S. is unbelievably vulnerable to a number of attacks and it’s a wonder that we stop as many as we do. It’s only a matter of time spent identifying various vulnerabilities and studying how to exploit them that could lead to a successful attack on infrastructure, people, natural resources, or the hearts and minds of the populace. Bad people will do bad things, and we can’t stop all of them.

U.S. Persons: To Collect or Not to Collect

As mentioned above, there are endless black holes of information that the public will never know or have access to regarding government programs designed to identify and defeat attacks against the homeland. But one thing that hasn’t been emphasized enough lately is the existence and implementation of intelligence oversight programs at all levels of military and civilian intelligence collection.

In the context of national security and its inherent destruction of privacy (as well as the 4th Amendment), it is important to attempt to distinguish any fine lines that delineate the two. In the US, there are several mechanisms in place that prohibit U.S. intelligence entities from collecting on U.S. persons (including U.S. businesses, corporations, and other entities overseas) in the U.S. or abroad. Period. But, there are only a few exceptions allowed, and even then the collection must fall within your mission set, must be imminently related to a terror attack or suspected terrorist activity, or must be used to similar effect. That hasn’t been brought up enough in the media lately and warrants more emphasis. This oversight doesn’t invalidate people’s concern over certain agencies running wild with information regarding U.S. persons, but still remains a valid talking point.

Privacy vs. Security: Something Wicked This Way Comes

To the effect of what the public is exposed to regarding U.S. collection, there has also been some reference labeling former contractor Edward Snowden as naïve for releasing the classified information that he did. But looking past the scope of immediate facts available for analysis here, one can disagree with that assessment. Maybe Snowden was simply a bit ahead of his time.

What Snowden did by releasing the Prism information (right or wrong) was provide the world with another major wake up call regarding the scope of what many governments and entities around the world are able to collect: information about us and our privacy. Not only what they are able to collect, but also the wide means they possess to do so. By releasing the classified information, Snowden identified to the world an underlying issue that will inevitably become an even bigger problem for the world in years to come – the protection of personal information and our privacy and its balance with security. As our data collecting and intelligence gathering means become all the more advanced and inherently intrusive (look at the means which require no expertise at all, like what people share on social media sites, for example), Snowden pointed out that we need to identify a balance between our privacy and our security, lest our government chooses for us.

Keep an Eye Out: We’re All Vulnerable

In the same line of thought regarding intrusive technology and data sharing, it’s not just governments around the world that collect and use the power of information. It’s equally as important to identify any discrepancies when discussing information sharing and privacy when many of us are guilty of completely disregarding our own privacy when it comes to sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. We’ve already put most of our personal information on the Internet (where it stays forever); what’s stopping someone else from taking and using it? Very little. Morbidly, at least the U.S. government has regulations in place to prohibit or at least limit its collection against its own citizens. Criminals, foreign countries, and other nefarious individuals have none – an important consideration for privacy and security outside the United States.

Transparency, Oversight, and Accountability

It will be easy to blame the spy agencies and other bureaucracies (which we all love) in our government for our lack of privacy and generally intrusive data collection programs, but the real blame lies with us – the American people – and our failure to call for proper transparency, oversight, and accountability from those we entrusted with the power in the first place. We gave them the position of authority; we have the political power to take it away. As cliché as it sounds, it’s up to the American people to determine where the balance between security and privacy should fall. Let’s think strategically and demand more of it now.

Disclaimer: this content is my personal view and not that of the USG. If you’re reading this, you’ve undoubtedly been highlighted by the NSA as a potential threat to national security. I recommend unplugging your computer and power source, destroying any electronic devices, and moving to a foreign country without rendition treaties as soon as possible.


(Featured Image Courtesy: The Back Channel)