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.
What the NSA wants to do with data
isn't much different from what Amazon.Com does. Every Amazon page you
see is different, created based on your preferences, your past
interactions with the site, your behavior. Google is trying to offer
the same service. In order to do this, they collect all the data they
can on all their users, which they sift through and deliver as
time-saving and money-saving services.
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
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
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
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
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.