It seems pretty likely that the NSA is operating a large-scale system called XKeyscore that captures and scans private Internet communications like email. Yesterday I talked about the constitutionality of such a system.
Regardless of whether the NSA is allowed to do this, is this something we, as a society, want? There is a lot of room for disagreement because it’s difficult to measure and compare the costs and benefits, but I’ve formed an opinion: No, absolutely not.
The only benefit I can think of is the potential to thwart terrorist attacks and other crime. That’s admirable—we don’t like terrorist attacks or crime so obviously we want to reduce them.
The most quantifiable cost is the actual money spent by the NSA to create and operate this system. The NSA’s budget is classified, but hundreds of millions of dollars seems like a fair guess.
A less obvious cost is the revenue that will be lost by American Internet companies from customers who desire stronger privacy guarantees. (See this article for more discussion.)
Risk of stolen data
The world is full of hackers with malicious intent. People who spend all day every day trying to steal other people’s private information. They regularly breach the security of companies with strong monetary incentives to keep your data secure. The NSA and it’s employees have only weak incentives to keep your data secure. From your own experience, do you find government employees to be more or less competent than private sector workers? The revelation of government collection of billions of private emails is an enticing target. It’s only a matter of time before a random kid in Russia steals and publishes billions of personal emails.
If the US is supposed to be a stalwart of free speech and protection from unreasonable searches, what’s going to happen in the rest of the world? We’re setting a bad example for everyone else. Oppressive governments will perform this same collection of information and it will be misused even worse than here.
Threat to free speech
The founders of this country knew what they were doing when they created the First Amendment to The Constitution (free speech, free assembly). Open discussion is an important safety check on the government. Someone who is afraid their words might be used against them might be less likely to say what’s on their mind. Fear of retribution hinders free speech.
Reconciling the pros and cons
While the threat of further terrorist attacks is real, I think the benefit of increased physical security does not justify the tremendous loss of fundamental rights. By violating our values we lower ourselves to the level of those who would attack us. When we forfeit our rights and allow ourselves to live in fear, the terrorists win.
What can you do?
Minimum effort: Read and sign this letter to the US Congress.
Low effort: Donate money to non-profit organizations that support government transparency and individual rights and liberties, such as the ACLU, EFF and EPIC.
More effort: Type a succinct and clear letter in your own words, print it, and mail it to your two senators and to your representative. You can look up your congress members here or here.
Want to read more?
Editorials from people who know their shit
Moxie Marlinspike, We Should All Have Something to Hide
Michael Arrington, Journalists Need to Start Asking About Storage, Not Access
Bruce Schneier has made numerous posts in June, July and August.
Jennifer Stisa Granick and Christopher Jon Sprigman, The Criminal N.S.A., a New York Times Op-Ed Contribution
Some of the original reports from The Guardian:
NSA collecting phone records of millions of Verizon customers daily
NSA Prism program taps in to user data of Apple, Google and others
UK gathering secret intelligence via covert NSA operation
NSA’s Prism surveillance program: how it works and what it can do
Or see all relevant NSA articles in The Guardian.
From The Washington Post:
NSA slides explain the PRISM data-collection program
U.S., British intelligence mining data from nine U.S. Internet companies in broad secret program
Edward Snowden says motive behind leaks was to expose ‘surveillance state’
Edward Snowden comes forward as source of NSA leaks
Code name ‘Verax’: Snowden, in exchanges with Post reporter, made clear he knew risks
NSA spying flap extends to contents of U.S. phone calls