NSA revelations: Fallout can serve our nation

By Ben FitzGerald and Robert Butler
December 18, 2013

The fallout from the Edward Snowden revelations continues to snowball. With each disclosure, allies, businesses and influential authors call for reform. There is ever growing pressure on the Obama administration to respond and quell these concerns before permanent damage is done.

As the crisis grows, many in Congress and the executive branch now focus on explaining why these programs are critical to countering terrorist threats and securing the country. President Barack Obama’s meeting with technology leaders Tuesday marks an early signal of willingness to engage in open dialogue. But until Washington fully addresses the concerns of these various groups through tangible government reform, the fallout will likely worsen.

Trust has been the principal casualty in this unfortunate affair. The American public, our nation’s allies, leading businesses and Internet users around the world are losing faith in the U.S. government’s role as the leading proponent of a free, open and integrated global Internet.

In discussing how the nation’s privacy and civil rights are being safeguarded, the administration and Congress inadvertently dismiss surveillance concerns. Government officials maintain its programs are legal, critical for national security, effective and managed with strict oversight — and thus should continue.

Yet legality does not confer legitimacy. The current approach to surveillance is widely viewed with skepticism and may even be unconstitutional. While no government will be able to persuade all foreigners that its spying efforts are in the service of good, there are steps Washington can and should take to limit the continuing damage from the Snowden fallout.

Washington must try to rebuild the trust. There are several proposals presented already that would take steps in this direction. The European Commission, for example, outlined six areas of action that it insists would restore trust in data flows between the United States and the European Union — including reforms in data protection and privacy standards. This would establish, or reinforce, agreed-upon rules and programs for government data collection on citizens, legal frameworks to manage the transfer of that data between governments and methods for judicial redress when required. This initiative is crucial because it enforces mutual accountability for all participants.

In addition, leading technology companies have laid out five principles for reform — data collection, oversight, transparency, data flow and government collaboration. Addressing these principles will, the companies say, provide protection from overly intrusive surveillance — and thereby encourage continued use of the businesses’ products and services. These proposals merit attention.

Loss of trust, however, remains the fundamental issue. Washington cannot fix this just by acceding to reforms suggested by others. The administration, with congressional support, must launch a proactive reform agenda, which would demonstrate an understanding of citizens’ concerns — allies and businesses alike.

The components are straightforward: public outreach to concerned constituencies, such as Tuesday’s meeting with technology leaders, amendments to policy and law — for example, updating the Safe Harbor frameworks for privacy protection — and review of the National Security Agency’s oversight mechanisms.

While these procedural steps are clear, the government can do more. The Snowden revelations are about trust as much as technological frontiers — so Washington’s efforts must focus on confidence building.

Security and openness need not be mutually exclusive and technological capability should not be the key to defining operational limits. Confidence can be re-established through government-led development of the explicit principles that set a better balance between security and openness. These principles must be formalized in government agencies’ policies, federal laws, Supreme Court rulings and congressional oversight establishing the government mechanisms to balance security and openness.

Credibly addressing this balance represents Washington’s best chance to rebuild the trust that has been so eroded. It is also an opportunity to recast the Snowden revelations as a reason to establish international norms that will govern all nations that are now developing and using similar surveillance capabilities.

What is required is to establish standards that Washington can hold itself and others to in terms of healthy collaboration with business, productive relationships with allies and appropriate protections for the data of private citizens.

Powerful surveillance capabilities will only grow over time. The United States must therefore establish a new “higher ground” in the international community to lead morally as well as technologically and ensure mutual accountability among governments.

The key is to act quickly. Though the United States needs to retain robust foreign surveillance, it is clear that the fallout from the NSA revelations will continue until proactive steps — rooted in trust, policy and law — are taken.

 

PHOTO (TOP): A National Security Agency data gathering facility is seen in Bluffdale, about 25 miles (40 kms) south of Salt Lake City, Utah, December 17, 2013. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

PHOTO (INSERT !): Fugitive former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden’s photograph on his refugee documents granted by Russia is seen during a news conference in Moscow August 1, 2013. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Directional antennas are pictured on the roof of a skyscraper in Berlin, November 5, 2013. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

5 comments

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“Government officials maintain its programs are legal, critical for national security, effective and managed with strict oversight — and thus should continue.”

We know that’s not true. It’s impossible to trust people who lie to us.

Posted by Des3Maisons | Report as abusive

Most important thing for American to do now: Move to Linux and open source software. Don’t use Microsoft, Google or Apple ecosystems – they are just Gulags.

Posted by Franek-Jancka | Report as abusive

“The United States must therefore establish a new “higher ground” in the international community to lead morally as well as technologically and ensure mutual accountability among governments.”

Yeah, that’s great. Except, many other countries don’t care. So then you’re stuck being the nice guys, while other guys out there are just doing whatever they want.

The NSA has existed since WW2. Name one innocent American who has somehow been deliberately damaged by them. What this is really about, is giving people an excuse to hate something they already hate. Whether it’s the paranoid anti gov nuts, or the conspiracy theorists, or anti US people in other countries… They were going to hate the US/government no matter what, so trying to appease people like that, is a giant waste of time. People in the US upset by this stuff, are ignorant fools. That’s why an idiot like Snowden is their hero. They don’t live by how the world really works… they live by how they think it SHOULD work. The problem is, that it doesn’t work that way.

If privacy is such an issue for people, why are they not concerned about the efforts of other countries, like China, North Korea, Iran, Nigeria? A huge chunk of the efforts to hack US computer systems, steal citizens money, and commit industrial espionage, is state sponsored. And unlike the US, those countries have NO oversight at all. Why are people not upset about that? People are outraged because the government might have some old phone bill info shoved in an innocuous server farm somewhere, but foreign state sponsored efforts to steal your money through the internet, on a daily basis… nobody has any problem with that?

I’ve yet to meet a single person who claims to be outraged by the NSA, actually understand what they do. I know this, because I’ve asked them. Ask somebody who starts whining about the NSA, what they actually do and how… they’ll stand there with a blank look on there face, because they have no clue.

People need to grow up and quit acting like a bunch of naive little babies. This is life in the real world… Get over it. Be thankful you live in a country that actually makes an effort to protect you. If you’re so self-absorbed and paranoid, that you actually think the government is wasting their time “tracking” you… Your real problem is that you need a therapist.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

One of the great lies in the US is that we are free. The government does many stupid things you wouldn’t expect rational people to do like spy on everyone because they can. It certainly is wasted effort, but it does make for many a lucrative and long lived bureaucratic career. Just as we fearmongered up a war on communists and drugs, we now fear up everyone with terrorism and grow the giant government bureacracy to fuel the careers of the fear mongers. The responses to these faked up enemies are always useless for the country and in the long run, always detrimental since the cure is worse than the disease. The problem is not that they will know everything about us but that they are either stupid enough to believe that it helps them or they are just greedy and want the money. A rational thought process would never lead one to believe that having records of all phone calls has any value for their supposed effort against terrorism.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Sure, let’s eliminate the NSA, so we can be free — free to have our personal data sold for profit by Google, Facebook, and other Internet companies, free to be compelled by potential employers to submit to credit checks, free to be compelled by potential employers to surrender our social media IDs / passwords and aliases we use for commenting on news article, free to have all of our personal data owned by credit agencies and not us, etc.

Posted by baroque-quest | Report as abusive