If you’ve been keeping up with the news over the past weeks and months, the big headlines had been how former NSA agent Edward Snowden leaked sensitive NSA information about how the US is spying on everyone.
I’m not here to take sides on whether or not he’s a traitor or patriot. In fact, most people I know have taken up the proverbial pitchforks to express their anger at the revelation of such a pervasive program targeting Americans and foreigners alike.
My goal today is not to defend or justify the NSA PRISM program but rather, explain why such a program exist from a technology perspective.
Throughout history, human innovations in technology and sciences have largely been developed in an empirical, innocent fashion. In atomic physics, it started as a way to understand matter and the universe. Many people who worked on the Manhattan Project did not know the result of their work would be the eventual disintegration of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians and ushered in decades of nuclear proliferation that still exists today.
The fact is, the technology to produce atomic weapons was there and if the technology is available, there would always be someone out there to exploit or weaponize it. For example, if you’re in a life and death fight against someone and you had a choice to pick a knife vs a gun, which weapon would you choose?
So going back to explain why PRISM exists, we originally developed Big Data to help us understand information and analyze it from a macro perspective. It has since helped numerous industries and allowed companies to gain better insight on their businesses.
PRISM exists because Big Data technology that supports it has matured in a way that allows us to gain insights on terror suspects. Try to put yourself in the shoes of an NSA director and understand the moral hazard behind all this:
“The technology exists today to monitor and spy on everyone, including potential terrorists”
“My job is to protect the American people and I want to do my best to prevent terrorist attacks”
“I don’t want to look bad if a terrorist attack happened and I have to tell the American people I haven’t exhausted all available options.”
“Implementing PRISM would grow my department, increase funding, and make my position more powerful.”
As you can see, the rationale and thought process of why the PRISM exists is founded on good intentions. Politically, it serves as a backstop for anyone who dares to question the effectiveness of anti-terror programs because it is the most effective weapon we have to prevent terrorism. Personally, it provides job security, and power.
If we were to dismantle such a program, we would be disarming ourselves in the intelligence arena. Just imagine if the US decides to dismantle all of its nuclear weapons, its nuclear deterrence would be nonexistent and other countries can threaten us with whatever they want.
We know other countries are doing the same thing. The proliferation of the surveillance state thus, is here to stay. Otherwise, other countries will gain a competitive advantage, targeting political targets, potentially inflicting harm economically by way of stealing technology and IP.
It’s a rather unfortunate reality in this day in age but I don’t share the same optimism of my peers in trying to completely eliminate the NSA surveillance program. If there’s any country I rather trust in the responsible use of this technology, it would be the United States. Therefore, the best-case scenario for change would to enforce a robust oversight process to prevent any possibility of abuse, corruption, coercion, manipulation of political targets.