The NSA Broke the Social Contract with the Tech World

Dilma Rousseff, the president of historically US-friendly Brazil, lashed out against the US government for their intrusion of her personal privacy, on the privacy of her government’s corporations, and on the privacy of Brazil’s citizens. She’s proposing some interesting and real-world solutions that will take some of the power away from the U.S. and possibly back into the hands of world internet users. Despite this, I believe that the biggest fallout that the NSA faces is their loss of trust with young technocrats, technologists, and engineers.

Perhaps Rousseff’s idea of a UN branch to deal with internet freedom will materialize and help create the political pressure to change privacy intrusion programs prevalent in the US and around the world. However, that will take decades with strong oppositions from many UN countries, not just the USA. It would put the “free world” in alliance with some of the most oppressive, autocratic countries to fight against such loss of sovereignty. Can you imagine Russia, Iran, Syria, or China, agreeing to an international body to promote internet freedom? Putin seems to flip-flop on the issue even if ministers in his own cabinet are clearly against it. However, it’s indisputable that china is against internet freedom, which they don’t deny in the slightest. Muslim countries feel the need to protect their citizenry from pornography, even in semi-secular, semi-democratic Turkey.

So why am I still optimistic that the Snowden leaks will produce significant, long lasting change?

It’s simple. Up until now, the tech world worked with with such bodies as the NSA and the British GCHQ (the good guys, they thought). In a way there was an unwritten, unspeakable contract: “you guys catch the real bad guys–the terrorists–and we won’t make your life too hard for you.”  As it turned out, the US government has broken this contract. While the phone number meta-data collection of US citizens may be most legally incriminating, what really broke this contract with the Tech World is the NSA’s complete disregard for privacy, oversight, and checks against their own system. Something that still haunts me, for example, is the screen shot of the tool used to track email communications. There’s a web-form that an analyst will fill out begin the query. That web-form contained a one-line input box (<input type=”text”>) for the justification for spying on that individual. That’s right, to spy on any email address you simply fill out a web-form similar to that when creating a new twitter account! Justification? Keep it under 30 characters, please!


Of course I’m entirely over simplifying this, but that screenshot is symbolic of the NSA’s approach to spying. They’ve grown lazy, complacent, and–I’m afraid–incompetent in the worst way possible. On the one hand, they built this incredibly powerful system capable on spying on internet traffic, but on the other hand, the gateway to accessing this powerful tool seems negligible. Snowden claims–and there is no reason to distrust his statements–that as a mid to low level 3rd party contractor, he could spy on who he wanted. His statements are substantiated by evidence of abuse: employees spying on their significant others. … I wonder what they typed in the small justification input box, “Frnd tld me she’s a cheating whore. Need proof.” But perhaps it’s not a required field.

If lack of oversight and evidence of abuse is not enough, there’s also substantial evidence that this tool is misused officially. The Tech World is fine with the NSA going after Al-Qaeda and violent terrorists. However, leaks clearly indicate that this tool is used for targeting journalists, protesters, publicly owned corporations, and politicians. This disclosure, I’m sure, is the last nail, the final straw for most of us.

But wait, there’s more! (As any as-seen-on-TV salesman will say)

The NSA, working with such government bodies as NIST  as insiders, have undermined our internet infrastructure. Suggestions of intentional back-doors in cryptographic systems takes this game to a new low. Read this Wired article for details.

The US government will claim that Snowden has caused them insurmountable damage; in a way, they are right. The disclosure of these practices have caused great damage, but only because they are true. It’s like the cheating husband who blames the divorce on his wife’s friend who disclosed his extra marital affair. The reason why the Snowden leaks are so damaging, is because they show that the US government broke the social contract with the Tech world. It has turned a semi-friendly group against the NSA just it turned a semi-friendly country against the US.

The consequences? I think that in the next few years cryptography standards will increase, privacy-protection products will flourish, and the Tech world will not make it so easy for PRISM-like programs to function.


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