Think of this as Volume 17, Number 43 of the newsletter I have written weekly since March, 1997. Enjoy.
People, on the other hand, are analog, We are not always logical. We rely on intuition, half-formed thoughts being the root of many breakthroughs.
Laws are a human construct. Their enforcement is also a human process. Cops, and even prosecutors, set priorities, limiting their attention on some things, focusing it on others. The law is not absolute.
There are, of course, some priorities that are absolute. Keeping someone from blowing up the world, or our part of it? That's an absolute. Beyond that, we get into gray areas, preferences, where people are bound to disagree.
The National Security Agency (NSA) is charged with keeping people from blowing up the world (unless it's on orders from the President). They're as absolute a group as you could have. The people who might blow up the world, or cooperate with those seeking to blow it up, are increasingly connected through technology. So the NSA feels it's an absolute priority to gain, and maintain, all the data it can on everyone, in hopes that when it gets a clue about the world being blown up it can sift that data and prevent it.
Cloud technology has transformed what we can do with data. The NSA wants to do all of that.
But the NSA doesn't really want to do everything that Amazon.com does. They don't want to analyze more than a tiny portion of the data they collect. They want to pull needles out of the archive haystack only when they have a need to. They only want to query the database when they have a specific query.
The difference between what the NSA and Amazon do with your data comes down to permission. The NSA does far less with data than Amazon, but they don't have your permission to do it. Instead they rely on the protection of laws that are written in secret, whose contents are secret, and whose interpretation is secret, for their permission. They don't think this is a problem. They're focused on their mission, keeping the world from getting blown up.
Every cop, no matter their beat, can get caught in this trap. The police where I live want to get the feeds of every home burglar camera they can, bring them into the local precinct, then query that database when crimes are reported in hopes of getting a suspect. Camera owners are anxious to offer this data stream, because they want to feel safe. But there have to be rules. No one knows what they are.
The same is true, in reverse, for dashboard cameras, or cell phone cameras wielded by citizens, documenting what cops do. Cops have reluctantly installed dashboard cameras, but they often get angry when citizens photograph them at their work. The fact that they're treating their “privacy” the same way citizens want theirs treated seldom occurs.
Before the rise of the cloud, Internet citizens could rely on security through obscurity to protect them from police intrusion. The cops just didn't have time, bandwidth, or disk space to care. Now, with plunging prices on cloud components, including mass storage, and with improved analytics – the same kind you use when you query Google.com – cops can get it all, and try to sift it all.
Which brings me back to the NSA. They feel their priority is absolute. Thus, they feel their power to collect data and analyze it – when needed – should also be absolute. Doesn't matter if the data is in some other country, and it doesn't matter if it's encrypted. What if that distance or technology is protecting someone about to blow up the world, they ask.
But our absolutes aren't Brazilian absolutes, they're not French absolutes, or German absolutes, let alone Russian and Chinese absolutes. To the NSA, these other absolutes are minor annoyances, until they get into the public debate.
I'm cool with the NSA having all the data they want on me, in the name of keeping the world from getting blown up. I think most Americans feel the same way, that the NSA should at least have the power of an Amazon.com or a Google, to collect and analyze data in the name of keeping the world from being blown up.
But that's as far as the charge goes, for most of us. It's not as far as the charge goes, according to the NSA. They also want to collect and sift data in order to drive national policy, and keep our policy makers one step ahead of all rivals. That's why Brazil and France and Germany are objecting. They think that's going too far. National advantage is not the same thing as blowing up the world.
But each one of those countries – every country – has its own set of priorities, and its own definition of national security, of things that should be absolutely forbidden. Many call their political opponents terrorists who would blow up their world. Others consider blasphemy against their religion to be terrorism. Many consider child abuse to be terrorism, making child porn to be terrorism-upon-terrorism. That's a route that leads down the rabbit hole, and to the end of a unified Internet.
That's where the NSA is tone deaf, and where frankly the President is tone deaf. We're trying to keep the world from being blown up – fine. We're trying to maintain our own national security – not so fine. Because this is a binary world, and absolute security for you means no security for me.
We all need to get this straight. The President needs to understand that the NSA's charge with the world's data does not go beyond keeping the world from getting blown up – it's not his data piggybank to Google as he sees fit. That needs to be in the law. Presidents who violate that law need to be impeachable.
At the same time privacy advocates, and I consider myself to be one, need to accept that keeping the world from getting blown up is an absolute, that this is the technology people will use in the future to try and blow it up, and that someone needs to be charged with preventing it.
Otherwise someone is going to succeed in blowing up the world. Because that's another way in which technology marches inexorably forward.