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Monday, June 17, 2013

Bill Keller, "Living With the Surveillance State": Ignoring the Real Threat

In an editorial entitled "Taking the mystery out of cyberwar" (, The Washington Post today describes defensive and offensive cyber operations, should the United States find itself in such a war:

"'Defensive cyber effects operations,' or DCEO, involve reaching outside of U.S. government networks to stop an assault or imminent threat. 'Offensive cyber effects operations,' or OCEO, are intended to 'offer unique and unconventional capabilities to advance U.S. national objectives around the world with little or no warning to the adversary or target and with potential effects ranging from subtle to severely damaging.' Both of these describe attacks, and, according to the directive, the president has ordered targeting plans. Stuxnet, the computer worm developed by the United States and Israel and used to sabotage Iran’s nuclear equipment a few years ago, was in the vanguard of such operations. Just recently, an online magazine that spreads al-Qaeda ideology was taken down, presumably another example."

Stuxnet, the product of a US and Israeli collaboration initiated when Bush was still president, can now be described as a fossilized worm. Should there be a future cyber war, look for a combined attack on transportation systems, power grids, telecommunications and financial markets. Although not as deadly as the tragic events on 9/11, such an assault could shut a country down and cause overwhelming destruction.

In his latest New York Times op-ed entitled "Living With the Surveillance State" (, Bill Keller begins by showering compliments on Thomas Friedman for his June 12, 2013 op-ed entitled "Blowing a Whistle" (see: Keller writes:

"Tom’s important point was that the gravest threat to our civil liberties is not the N.S.A. but another 9/11-scale catastrophe that could leave a panicky public willing to ratchet up the security state, even beyond the war-on-terror excesses that followed the last big attack. Reluctantly, he concludes that a well-regulated program to use technology in defense of liberty — even if it gives us the creeps — is a price we pay to avoid a much higher price, the shutdown of the world’s most open society. Hold onto that qualifier: 'well regulated.'"

Well, I have news for both Bill and Tom: The bigger current danger to the US is not another 9/11 type attack, but rather a massive cyber assault. Moreover, even with warnings from Moscow concerning the Tsarnaev brothers, the data accumulated by PRISM couldn't prevent the Boston Marathon bombing.

Keller continues:

"But in most cases the advantages of intrusive technology are tangible and the abuses are largely potential. Edward Snowden’s leaks about N.S.A. data-mining have, so far, not included evidence of any specific abuse.

The danger, it seems to me, is not surveillance per se. We have already decided, most of us, that life on the grid entails a certain amount of intrusion. Nor is the danger secrecy, which, as Posner notes, 'is ubiquitous in a range of uncontroversial settings,' a promise the government makes to protect 'taxpayers, inventors, whistle-blowers, informers, hospital patients, foreign diplomats, entrepreneurs, contractors, data suppliers and many others.'

The danger is the absence of rigorous, independent regulation and vigilant oversight to keep potential abuses of power from becoming a real menace to our freedom. The founders created a system of checks and balances, but the safeguards have not kept up with technology. Instead, we have an executive branch in a leak-hunting frenzy, a Congress that treats oversight as a form of partisan combat, a political climate that has made 'regulation' an expletive and a public that feels a generalized, impotent uneasiness. I don’t think we’re on a slippery slope to a police state, but I think if we are too complacent about our civil liberties we could wake up one day and find them gone — not in a flash of nuclear terror but in a gradual, incremental surrender."

No "evidence of any specific abuse"? The fact that Snowden was privy to PRISM is in and of itself a significant failure. Add to this, Snowden's declaration: "I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal e-mail." In short, I would bet that a serious investigation would reveal massive abuse by NSA staff and subcontractors. Randomly select 100 NSA and subcontractor employees and ask them to take a polygraph to determine whether they ever abused the system. My guess is that there would be much "unhappiness" within the ranks.

Congress might also want to ask James Clapper about the hacking of Sharyl Attkisson's computer.

Indeed, the employment of Snowden and his freedom of action are evidence of the absence "of rigorous, independent regulation and vigilant oversight to keep potential abuses of power from becoming a real menace to our freedom."

I agree with Keller that "if we are too complacent about our civil liberties we could wake up one day and find them gone." In any given instance, a balance must be struck between the intrusiveness of technology and its ability to prevent disaster. The Boston Marathon bombing demonstrated PRISM's limited value.

More important, PRISM is powerless to prevent the real threat currently facing the US, i.e. a massive cyber assault on America's infrastructure, whose cost could prove immeasurable.


  1. "...the real threat currently facing the US, i.e. a massive cyber assault on America's infrastructure, whose cost could prove immeasurable."

    Unfortunately, the experts concur with your analysis.

    Eugene Kaspersky, the founder and CEO of Kaspersky Labs, famous for discovering the existence of Stuxnet is predicting a "Cyber Armageddon".

    Read more here:

  2. I'd skip the polygraph altogether and go straight to the 'who's living above their pay-grade' algorithm audit used by the IRS for years. Really, if you could tap into 'any wave, and wire' without any oversight, wouldn't you be the least bit curious as to how Warren Buffett became the "Oracle of Omaha"?

    Jay Leno joked the other night, saying:
    "People are asking how this Snowden guy could download all this classified information and give it to a British newspaper without the NSA knowing about it. I think I know the answer. If you don’t want the NSA spying on you, get a job working at the NSA. That’s how it works."

    In all likelihood, he was right. According to the Guardian, Snowden had four computers with him in Hong Kong. MI assume he also had at least one smartphone as well. But unlike our PCs and smartphones, his were protected with advanced software which made them look unsuspecting to prying eyes even if they were lost, stolen or confiscated.

    Now, every corrupt politician is going to want one of these:

    So, who's watching the watchers? General Dynamics? Boeing? Bill & Tom?


    For a moment, I thought this was Snowden's girlfriend trying her best to cheer him up.

  4. As usual, we already have the film version from 2006: "Live Free or Die Hard"
    wherein hackers call such a combined attack a 'Fire Sale' explained to all. That cinema mastermind was fired by the Federal government.

    Perhaps the real world twist will be blowback from Hollywood's consistent portrayal of Ukrainians as really scary thugs (in other films, tv) instead of realizing, in reality, they seem to be planet earth's cyber-mercaneries.

    "...rigorous, independent regulation and vigilant oversight..." Wow, does Keller think the SEC has figured that out [not!] so everyone can believe the NSA has too?

    Personally, I think the MERS coronavirus emerging from the 2013Haj will get us first.

    Nostalgic for "lions, tigers, and bears...oh, my!"


    p.s. JG: re: Kahlua with "Blade Runnner" Seriously? That's a Jack Daniels sipping whiskey dystopia :)