By Saba Long
Just a couple of months ago, I participated in a national security training simulation as part of a conference. Each table in the room represented key members of the President’s cabinet – the Secretary of State, Vice President, Homeland Security Chief and the Attorney General, to name a few. Also present was a group representing internet service providers.
My table was the Department of Defense.
While we worked through our simulation – how to respond to a cyber attack on a multinational banking institution by a terrorist cell – it became immediately clear of the numerous and complex variables to consider before making a unilateral executive decision that would affect the American public, the business community and, of course, national security.
In the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks, those on all sides of the political spectrum are exclaiming “traitor” or “hero.” A new Pew Research Center report shows 56 percent of Americans find the accessing of telephone records by the National Security Administration to be “acceptable.”
Additionally, 45 percent of Americans surveyed said the government should have the authority to monitor the public’s online activity in an effort to prevent a terrorist attack.
It seems the American approach when it comes to security versus privacy is that security will prevail. When our government is successful in thwarting threats to public safety as a result of capturing private communications beforehand, the American public breathes a collective sigh of relief and ignores the nagging concern of personal privacy. And when we fail to act on the warning signs, as was the case with the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston, it stains the credibility of our national security agencies.
While the public is generally lenient with our government’s data collection, our elected officials and the media are fairly quiet regarding the cyber activities directed toward the United States by non-American entities. For example, there has been little public reaction to news that China’s People’s Liberation Army has successfully pirated data from private contractors used by the U.S. military and the Obama and McCain campaigns’ email accounts.
Additionally, American corporations have also been prey to attacks by the Chinese and rogue independent hackers. Yet, elected officials are far less vocal on these serious threats to national security and the American financial structure. Perhaps big data is our new inconvenient truth.
In true Washington fashion, half of U.S. senators skipped a Thursday briefing on the NSA’s PRISM program to take advantage of a long Father’s Day weekend. The public uses that same lackadaisical mindset when generously handing over private data to sign up for a discount card at their favorite store or upon downloading a popular mobile app.
While big data is likely here to stay, the real question we must answer is what are the parameters of government surveillance. How far is too far? And even then, when the boundaries are pushed and the public’s tolerance is revoked, we will never grasp the full scope of a national security threat.