Monday, June 10, 2013

NSA Leaks: Balancing Justice and Indignation

Observing the actions of Edward Snowden in regards to the NSA leaks, I can see why he did what he did but I have to disagree totally with his approach.

Let me explain.

Back in the early 2000’s, I was traveling through one of North America’s top 10 busiest airports and I happened to notice an event that really disturbed me.  Now in fairness to the people I was observing, one of the curses of being a long-time strategy advisor to Wall St. and Fortune 25 organizations is that you are always analyzing everything around you, even when you know you should be relaxing or minding your own business.

As I observed the security personnel in action, I realized that I had just witnessed a way to get an explosive, a gun or some other unwelcome device past airport security.

With a great amount of concern, I dutifully wrote an email to the federal authorities, explaining my credentials including in large-scale security architecture on Wall St., outlining what I witnessed, expressing my concerns about the potential that could be created and so on.

Some time later, I received a very polite but formal dismissal in response, basically suggesting that they were the experts in airport security, I was not and closing with a “thanks for writing anyway” type of closing comment.

In the fall of 2012, I happened to be traveling through the same airport and at the same security gate, I noticed that the same security hole was present. (Don’t bother asking me about it – I will not respond to queries asking what the security concern is.)  I mentioned this scenario to a Chief Security Officer of a major airline and he acknowledged that my concern was legitimate.

Now if I wanted to get all indignant about how no one was paying attention, how people were at risk and such, I could have easily gone to the press and blown the story wide open.

And in the meantime, as the great wheels of bureaucracy churned away, mulling over what to do to address the issue, my righteous indignation would have enabled less-than-desirable individuals or organizations to initiate an action that my righteous indignation was trying to prevent.

So … in this example, it would be open for debate whether a detailed public disclosure would help or hinder efforts to enhance airline security.

Hero or villain status would not be determined by that action but by subsequent actions that took place.

Fast forwarding to today …..

As far as Mr. Snowden is concerned, I agree that the US Federal Government’s surveillance and cyber defense (and attack) programs may seem to be a little over-reaching.  I recently mused about the trouble that these programs could create in my blog entry “The Coming Storm”.

However, for the many people suddenly waking up and fearing surveillance, the development of such programs goes back to the 1960’s and earlier, including programs such as Echelon and others.  To suddenly be startled by such technology is to not be paying attention to what one’s own elected officials have been doing for the past 50 years.

Recognizing that we get the government we deserve can be a difficult pill for many to swallow.

With the long-time existence of such programs, we have to face some basic realities:

1. We can have total freedom from surveillance or we can have total personal security.  We can’t have both without compromise on both sides of the equation and given that many people prefer security over privacy, the use of such technology is inevitable.  Whether or not the use of such technology should be limited requires a detailed analysis of what motivates human beings.

2. Most people who fear such surveillance, if in the same position as the leaders of today and offered the use of technology to do their job, would use it.

3. As long as human beings are involved in the equation of privacy versus security, we will always have the concern of the weakest link, whether it is the occasional person using the information for personal gain, someone selling it to a foreign power or some other compromise of the information being gathered.  Having experienced identity theft multiple times at the hands of bank employees, I still have no choice but to use banks in my day-to-day affairs or withdraw from the world’s financial systems.

4. Any government will take action to protect what it perceives to be its national interests, no matter how legitimate others perceive those interests to be.  Those of us who have signed security clearance covenants know exactly what actions will be taken against us should we violate such covenants.

5. People who exhibit rabid, fanatical stands against such surveillance programs actually expedite the implementation of them.  Take a look at Alex Jones, well known conspiracy guy, and his interview on the BBC last weekend for an example.  If you were responsible for national security, outbursts like this would make you nervous also.

Mr. Snowden’s actions, while understandable from a righteous indignation standpoint, are in defiance of these basic realities.  On the other hand, his actions are a warning to NSA and other groups to tighten up control over access to delicate information (Mr. Snowden had access to a lot of information despite his relatively short time in the intelligence community).  Imagine if his righteous indignation had caused him to sell information over the course of many years instead of releasing it to the press in a big explosion.

As far as the damage potential of his actions is concerned, the amount of damage done will depend on perspective and the events that follow the initial event.

The bottom line

For Mr. Snowden to go public with his info may have seemed like a good idea at first but it does undermine national security and potentially enables enemies of the state to adjust their execution in a manner that circumvents national security programs.

And when (not if) that happens, while one may think one is a hero, one may be inadvertently enabling someone who in the future will compromise the personal safety and security of many people … including people important to you.

Should such an event occur and someone who matters to you is threatened as a result, would you still consider the original person who acted with such indignation a hero or a villain?

Perspective is a powerful force, isn’t it?

When an information compromise or a terrorist act occurs in the future, we will be reminded once again that no matter what approach we take, we will always be faced with the notion of the weakest link – that human frailties will always be present no matter how much we wished they weren’t.

As for the people who are against surveillance, that horse has long since bolted out of the barn.  Surveillance is here to stay and the more people strive to rid the world of it, the more pervasive (and possibly covert) it will become, if for no other reason than out of fear of the people who oppose it.

Do you prefer safety for your family or freedom for them?

The answer is not an either/or - we can have both but to have both will require compromise.

And it will always come with risk.

No other scenario is possible if safety AND freedom are desired and human beings are involved in the mix. 

To expect anything else is to assume that human beings are far more perfect than they are and to assume that such complex, flawed beings can create simple, perfect solutions.

In service and servanthood,


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