The Challenge Between The Intelligence Community and Privacy

There is an interesting article on the World Economic Forum web site (link below) regarding mass data collection and the world wide intelligence community.  The article, while leaning in the direction of the intelligence community, does endeavor to point out some of the issues on the privacy side.

Very briefly, the intelligence community worldwide is charged with protecting us from bad stuff and that is not an easy task.  While having access to a lot of data does not solve the problem, not having access to data certainly does not help things.

The article points out that the intelligence community will always push at the boundaries and effective, competent oversight is required in  order to make sure that the pendulum doesn’t swing too much in either direction.

I think that most people want to feel safe.  I think fewer people think that massive data collection has significantly improved the odds – whether that is true or not.  Remember, perception is reality.

I also think that the public does not make much of a distinction between Google and Facebook collecting data and some intelligence agency collecting it.

I think the biggest challenge that the intelligence community worldwide faces is that *IF* people, which includes terrorists and sympathizers, think that their communications are not safe, they will go underground and that is a MUCH bigger problem.  Whether the NSA, GCHQ or some other agency can hack into TOR or not, it clearly is a much more time consuming effort to extract data from the dark web than it is from Facebook.  TOR is only one of a thousand different ways to hide relationships and communications.

One thing that works in the intelligence community’s favor is that the bad guys don’t understand this.  I am not sure how much longer that advantage will last.

What social media does for terrorists is give them a mass communication platform that they lose if they go to encrypted point to point traffic.

If the general perception is that governments have overstepped their laws, then people will endeavor to fight back.  Some will do this effectively, others not so much so.

Clearly, as the article does point out, the intelligence community needs to get the public on their side.  In those efforts, I think they score a ‘D’ at best.  For example, while there has been a little arm waving about how effective their current mass data collection has been, there is little substance.  And when there was substance, it has been about as solid as Jello.

For example, after the Snowden leak, President Obama said that we know of at least 50 threats that have been averted .. so lives have been saved.

Rep. Mike Rogers said that 54 times this and other programs stopped and thwarted terrorist attacks, saving lives.  I am sure that if you include “other programs”, there are likely hundreds of attacks, maybe thousands, in some state of viability or other, that have been stopped.  At least I certainly hope so.

When Gen. Alexander spoke at Black Hat last year, he talked about 54 terrorist-related activities, 42 of which were plots.

When Sen. Leahy questioned Gen. Alexander in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, Gen. Alexander said that only 13 of those incidents had “some nexus” to the United States.

If I take my privacy hat off and put my economics hat on for a moment, you are telling me that we spent billions, if not tens of billions, of dollars and what we got for that was thirteen incidents with some nexus to the United States.  Incident and some nexus were not defined.  That does not seem like a great return on investment.  Is there a better way to spend that money to keep us safe?

I would be the last person to say that I have the answer to the intelligence problem.  It is likely one of the most difficult problems facing us.  That being said, more discussion and more transparency is likely better than the alternative.  I think this is the “interesting times” that the old proverb talks about.


The WE Forum article can be found here.

Some information for this article came from the Huffington Post.

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