What’s the Alternative?

The Director of the National Security Agency argues that the NSA should be in charge of computer security in this country. Long the home of some of subject matter experts in computer technology and cryptography, this would seem to make a lot of sense.

But the NSA is an intelligence agency, and free people in a democratic society don’t like the idea of an intelligence agency – built to listen in on the conversations of “others” overseas – turning its extremely powerful data collection apparatus on them. The same or at least a similar argument is made whenever the topic of a domestic intelligence agency is brought up and the FBI argues that they should do the job: People don’t like the idea of those who can arrest you also having the authority to snoop on you. Dig hard and long enough into anyone’s life and you’re bound to find them committing a “crime,” and when you’re rewarded by the number of arrests you make and convictions you win, well, the recipe for abuse becomes obvious.

The hyperbole surrounding computer security that has been bantered about over the past few years aside, it’s clear that the more pervasive computers (in all their forms) become in our lives, the more of a problem insecure systems pose. But if access to, and the use of, such technology is increasingly viewed as a “right,” then some mechanism for defending that right is in order. If that defending entity isn’t the NSA, what is the alternative?

The Department of Homeland Security is often touted as the place where domestic computer security (if that’s even a thing) should be addressed, but I know of no one who would entrust such a mission to an organization that is famous for its dysfunction, and there is enough of that in computer security already. Remember, this is the agency that changes out “cyber czars” more frequently than Liz Taylor changed husbands (am I dating myself?).

Before we completely discard the idea of NSA involvement it may be useful to point out that the NSA is actually two large organizations underneath the same umbrella: an intelligence collection and analysis organization, and an information security organization. The former is the part that listens in on people’s conversations; the latter is the part that is in charge of wrapping math around our own conversations. There is an obvious symbiosis there, but what if you spun the INFOSEC organization out of big-NSA and let if focus on cyber security for all of us? Removed from Ft. Meade, ideally out of the Washington DC area altogether, it could be the center of expertise both the government and private sector need and would trust because they’d be about “security” not “intelligence.”

There is also an argument to be made that there isn’t a compelling need to do anything new from a governmental perspective. Leaving industry to its own devices seems like a bad idea, but cases where poor computer security led to the outright downfall of a company are notable because they’re so rare. The fact of the matter is that companies that get hacked and lose intellectual property suffer no long-term financial penalty, and since that’s what Wall Street grades C-level executives on, where is the incentive to change? It’s worth noting that the loudest voices lamenting the cost of IP theft all have a vested interest in more security, not higher profits.

This begs the question: is “economic prosperity” truly a national security issue? If that were the case the Chinese would have started chopping off French heads once they learned d’Entrecolles had stolen the method for making ‘china;’ the British would have hunted down and shot Slater and his ilk. Protecting IP and R&D that supports defense is a stronger argument, but traditionally our government isn’t in the business of making sure private enterprises can turn a profit (let’s not get side-tracked talking about farm subsidies). This is not the case in other countries, but since when is the US, France? If we became France (in this regard) at some point while we weren’t looking, then it’s time to make that policy known so that we can all act accordingly.

At this point, if forced to do something, I’d say we shift our resources as noted above. I’d rather have a solution that wasn’t a big-government one, but I can’t come up with one at this point. Anyone have any other, original ideas that don’t involve more spooks in the wire?


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