Full disclosure, I am extremely uncomfortable with the intrusive intelligence programs going on at NSA. If it weren’t for Edward Snowden and Mark Klein (former AT&T technician) we wouldn’t know about NSA activities on telephony and data networks. It makes you wonder what additional data the NSA is collecting that we don’t know about.
Beyond the privacy issue however, there are a few other fundamental questions here and I don’t hear anyone asking them. Allow me to chime in:
- How effective are these programs? PRISM is just one of several programs based upon data collection and mining. We’ve heard rhetoric about how these programs have protected us by detecting and preventing terrorist attacks but no one has provided any detail. Yeah, I know this is classified information but this means that we U.S. Citizens have to take the government’s word for it which has proved to be a fool’s choice in the past. We do know that in spite of these massive programs, the intelligence community missed the underwear bomber (spelling error in database), the Time Square bomber, and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Given these “swings and misses,” how often did the intelligence community deliver base hits?
- How much does it cost? The NSA budget is classified but you've got to figure that the U.S. is spending multiple billions of dollars on data collection, storage, and mining. Heck, the NSA is building a $1.2 billion data center in Utah, capable of holding yottabytes of data. Big dollars for government integrators but is this investment really worth it in an era of budget deficits and bridges falling apart? Without an answer to question #1, we can’t understand whether we are throwing good money after bad to keep K Street lobbyists and “Beltway Bandits” fat and happy.
- How secure are these programs? In my mind, Booz Allen has a bit more explaining to do. How was Edward Snowden, a new employee, able to walk out the door with classified data so easily? At a higher level, how many others working at L3, CACI, and SAIC could expose similar data to the press or sell it to Iran, North Korea, or other nations? A disgruntled worker could make the damage caused by Bradley Manning look like nothing.
This whole NSA program reminds me of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, aka “Star Wars”) of the Reagan era. The U.S. spent a lot of money on a program that most scientists viewed as impossible. I realize that NSA employs a lot of smart data scientists but can they really mine yottabytes of data and gain any intelligence value in a reasonable timeframe? I have my doubts.
President Eisenhower warned us of the Defense Industrial Complex. We should heed the same warning about the Cyber Industrial Complex.