One of the problems when the media and the pundit class are obsessed with shiny objects such as Russian campaign antics is that Congress and the rest of the federal government end up doing things with far less attention than those things should receive.
Last week, the House Judiciary Committee approved the latest version of legislation governing how and to what extent the NSA, FBI, et. al., spy on us.
Yes, Russia buying Facebook ads during last year’s campaign is interesting and perhaps troubling, but I’m far more concerned about the government reading Americans’ emails, tracking phone calls and otherwise prying into every corner of our lives — without warrants or cause.
The USA Liberty Act makes timid improvements toward protecting our privacy
If you, like me, are interested, the USA Liberty Act, approved by committee and headed to the House floor, does make some timid improvements toward protecting our privacy.
But not nearly enough.
Most experts agree that it will still allow the government to read our emails, listen to phone calls and collect text messages without a warrant. That’s not acceptable.
But let’s back up a bit. The legislative process will play out, and groups like the ACLU, Our America Initiative and others will fight the good fight to try to protect us from unwarranted government spying. Hopefully, the Constitution and our rights will ultimately prevail.
However, my concern about the NSA’s practices has never been just about the Constitution and the law – as important as those are.
The other side of this equation is simple government competence, or lack thereof. Every time we have the debate about government surveillance and the collection of personal data, the government responds with assurances that they aren’t going to abuse that information, that it’s safe and generally, “Trust us. It will be OK.”
The National Security Agency and the U.S. government’s cyber weapons have been hacked
In the category of “I told you so”, The New York Times last Sunday published a truly alarming article outlining the extent to which the NSA has been hacked by a group known as the Shadow Brokers, and probably others.
Largely missed in all the noise about Russian Facebook ads and Trump Tower meetings has been the fact that incredibly powerful “cyberweapons” developed by our own government have been stolen and sold to North Korea and, yes, Russia.
Many of the high-profile “hacks” of recent months, which exposed millions of Americans’ most sensitive information, are likely the result of the NSA’s embarrassing and ironic failure to protect the weapons it has developed in the name of protecting us.
If hackers can get their hands on the government’s most secretive cyber weapons, how difficult can it be for them to get their hands on those billions, if not trillions, of emails, phone records and texts the government is sweeping up in its surveillance nets?
It’s unclear how the NSA was breached, but it is clear that it was breached
Reportedly, it still isn’t clear how the NSA was breached. The only thing that is clear is that the government was breached. And extremely valuable information is now available on the open market.
There are a few things we know. One, the notion that the government will collect information, but not use it, is ludicrous. History, common sense, and basic human nature all argue compellingly against that assurance.
Second, trusting our privacy and the security of personal data to the competence of the government is not a good plan. Everything from the personnel files of government employees to our most sensitive cyber warfare tools have found their way into unauthorized hands.
Does anyone really believe it won’t happen again?
“Trust me, I’m from the government” doesn’t cut it.
Even if it was a good idea – or constitutional – for the NSA or any other agency to engage in mass surveillance of American citizens, whether they could do so without screwing it up is an entirely different question.
So far, I’m not feeling very reassured.