Saturday, October 5, 2013

Is the NSA Breaking Bad in the Name of Cyber Security?

It is a rare week indeed that yet another National Security Agency action in the name of national safety is not unveiled for the public to see. The revelations are almost like a slow-motion card deal in Texas hold ’em, with the nation waiting to see where the next deal of the up card leads us.

The latest card? Ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the agency has been using its metadata collection to graph the relationships between Americans’ social connections. According to an NSA memorandum, these steps were intended “to help the agency discover and track” overseas intelligence targets.

But is the NSA actually pulling a Walter White and breaking bad in its mission to ensure American security?

The agency may feel it has probable reason to do so. Here’s why:

  • Cyber defenses are highly ineffective. Hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of intellectual property has been stolen, bank computer networks are brought down with impunity, and as just revealed, Iran has succeeded in breaking into Navy computer systems, all of which place more pressure on preventing future attacks.
  • Cyberattacks are increasingly more sophisticated. The aforementioned article on the U.S. Navy hack points out that Iran is making great strides in its cyber weaponry. Iran is also suspected of the attacks that crippled 30,000 Saudi Aramco computers.
  • Media leaks on NSA procedures allow terrorist groups to modify their methods to evade detection. Such leaks have rendered the NSA’s discovery processes less capable, creating the need to find new means of detecting potential future attacks. This is an arduous process that costs the NSA time that it may feel it does not have.

While the NSA’s capabilities are continually being compromised, the agency’s job becomes increasingly harder. But has this led to the agency breaking bad?

According to a September 23rd Wall Street Journal article, recently declassified FISA court documents state that NSA surveillance, in their opinion, “is limited and legal.”

But might the NSA cross the line in the near future? My guess is no. There is already enough media indignation over alleged overreaching by the NSA. And with the recent introduction of a Senate resolution seeking to limit the agency’s phone monitoring powers, the NSA will likely err on the overly conservative side to avoid further clipping of its intelligence-gathering wings.

At this juncture, Americans might serve their country best by standing back and looking at the bigger picture.

With cyber defenses weak and attacks increasing in power, the threats to our way of life are accelerating. Perhaps our energy would be better spent supporting the NSA’s efforts to improve cyberattack prevention capabilities rather than forcing the agency to spend its time justifying its means.

Breaking Bad? More like Die Hard.

("USA Flag" image: Michael Elliott/

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