On Spying, A Deficit Of Trust

After it was revealed that the National Security Administration was collecting phone records of every single U.S. call on the Verizon network, even President Obama’s most ardent supporters are losing faith that he would usher in a more transparent government. Loyal Democrat, former Vice President and Internet inventor, Al Gore called the NSA’s massive spying program “obscenely outrageous”.

Americans have always accepted the necessary evil of secrecy to protect citizens, but a disturbing trend in politically motivated security scandals has eroded the trust that justifies secrecy in the democracy. As a result, there hasn’t been enough public support for Congress to update our badly antiquated cybersecurity laws.

Secrecy is not an unlimited free pass for wanton privacy invasion: the government has to prove, at least somewhat regularly, that the good outweighs the bad. Unfortunately, we have been presented with little evidence that massive spying operations are producing the intended effects.

Last year, in a rare freak-everyone-out Wall Street Journal OpEd in support of improved cybersecurity legislation, President Obama resorted to an imaginary example to prove his point.

“Last month I convened an emergency meeting of my cabinet and top homeland security, intelligence and defense officials…Unknown hackers, perhaps a world away, had inserted malicious software into the computer networks of private-sector companies that operate most of our transportation, water and other critical infrastructure systems. Fortunately, last month’s scenario was just a simulation,” he wrote.

Yet, there appears to be more evidence that the harm to a free media has been greater than the alleged benefits of intrusion. There has been a baffling level of secrecy around the trail of Wikileaks source, Bradley Manning‘s trial: most journalists have been denied access to the proceedings, there’s no transcript, and even the judge’s name was redacted in one government report.

“I can’t think of a reason for it,” says Eugene Fidell, an expert in military legal history at Yale Law School.

Fidell tells me he doesn’t suspect malicious intent, but does think the military brass involved don’t understand the value of public opinion or the need for reporters to do their job. “It is utterly inimical to daily journalism.”

Nor is that the only case: after it was revealed the AP had been wiretapped for weeks to uncover who had leaked information about a foiled Al-Qaeda bomb plot, President Obama issued new orders to protect journalists, saying he was “troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable.”

While we may not know the intent or the full scope of these scandals, it is clear that there’s a culture within the security apparatus that doesn’t respect journalistic or independent oversight.

And, the lack of trust is getting in the way of badly needed cybersecurity reform. The national still doesn’t have an up-to-date, comprehensive plan to protect critical infrastructure (water plants, electrical systems, and nuclear facilities, etc). One audit discovered porn-watching employees unintentionally downloading malicious software onto vulnerable missile sites.

Like this year’s failed Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), each time Congress attempts to pass security reform, it gets muddled in a privacy-versus-safety debate and we go another year without important protections.

The Senate’s resident tech wonk, Ron Wyden (CrunchGov Grade: A), has called for increased transparency and oversight into the nation’s spying programs, but the NSA has apparently denied his request to even estimate how many innocent Americans are being targeted.

National security is important, but not infallible. If there is no evidence that intrusive spying is necessary, than its constitutionality will be as imaginary as the examples used to justify it.

[Image Credit: Flicker user aussiegall]