Land of the free or home of the lies?

Jul 15, 2014

By Averi Haugesag
NNAF News Fellow | The University of North Dakota

Sitting in the National Security Agency and Central Security Service’s National Cryptologic Museum, in a room where agents are sworn in, a man like Bill Combs is the last thing you would expect.

Walking through the door looking for all the world like one of the “Men in Black,” in a black suit, white button up shirt, black glasses, and tie—he stands in front of a room full of reporters and said, “Are we in the news or something? Are we all of a sudden of interest? And begins to laugh.

“We’re real people—I know that’s kind of hard to believe with all you read in the newspaper,” added Combs.

Combs is the technical director in the Public Affairs office at the NSA, which means he’s the public relations guy for a secret organization. He said the most important things Americans need to know about the NSA is that it is their job to save lives, defend vital networks, advance U.S. goals and alliances, and protect privacy rights.

“It’s been here all along; it’s not just because of all the news stuff,” Combs claimed.

“Threats are always growing and changing,” said Combs. “And the United States of America is definitely a target, we’ve been a target for a long time.” But as time passes, threats change. “Some kid sitting in his basement could be a code breaker,” Combs added.

Since the Snowden leaks in 2012-2013, the NSA has been in the limelight—not necessarily in a good way.

One of America’s biggest concerns about the leaks is the belief the NSA was collecting meta-data. Tom Blanton, the director of the National Security Archives at the George Washington University explained metadata as “the “to,” “from,” date, time, and duration of every one of your calls. When you made that call, where were you? And where was the other person who received that call? Create that map where they know that about every one of the calls or texts you’ve made and boom, that’s a lot of knowledge.”

Knowledge not everyone is comfortable with the government having. According to a Gallup poll in June 2013, 53 percent of Americans disapprove of American surveillance programs. The Snowden revelations, as reported in the Washington Post and the Guardian, had their importance certified by winning the Pulitzer Prize for public service.

“With regard to NSA metadata collection, whether you consider it spying on Americans or not, it certainly lends itself to that—our country is different than all others in a sense that freedom and liberty is a guarantee, it’s somewhat chilling our government collects information on us. First of all that they can, and second of all that they do,” said U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-ND.

“If you look at this whole issue, and you look at the totality of the issue, it’s not just about what the government is retaining. In the end, the government has access to anything anyone is retaining,” said U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-ND.

Bill Combs said despite popular belief, the NSA is not interested in spying on all Americans.

“If you send the NSA a bunch of e-mails saying “Bomb”—we don’t care. Bomb could mean pump in Spanish,” he said. “The NSA really doesn’t care. If you were talking to a terrorist daily, then we would be interested. Chances are 99.999 percent of Americans aren’t talking to terrorists every day,” Combs said with a smile.

“I tend not to believe that they are spying on us at this point,” Cramer said. “I want to believe that they only spy on the targets. I get how it works. I understand the concept. That said, even if they never have, there’s a principle even beyond that—the fact that they could and they collect it in the first place is contrary to our rights as Americans. It’s pretty unnerving to say the least.”

“Does NSA have the technology [to spy on Americans]? Probably. Do we have the people to do it? Probably not,” said Combs. Plus, as far as metadata goes, “You don’t see any of the conversation or anything. You only see the to, the from, and the time stamp,” he added.

Many people feel Snowden’s metadata revelations make him both a hero and a traitor. “Whistleblowers are cranky people—they have to be. Most people who are willing to blow the whistle and take the risk and maybe be prosecuted, there’s maybe a level of courage there, and a level of courage there. But he’s also a hero because his revelations come after the government directly lied. When the government is lying, as citizens, we have a duty,” Blanton said.

Cramer noted that, “[The NSA] may believe or they may even have a case to make that they uphold the Constitution. I happen to think whether they do or they don’t, maybe the founders didn’t anticipate these types of technology? They certainly knew what they were doing. There’s just something unnerving about the whole idea they can and do collect that information on all Americans.”

During the briefing, a senior intelligence official explained that he had been working with the NSA for more than 30 years and it was his job to provide information to people in Washington such as the president and other policy makers. He said the NSA operates under the law.

“Do you know what happens when we break a rule?” asked Combs. “We go to prison.”

After the metadata leak, many American’s are now worrying about all of the other information they have out there. They worry the government will get ahold of this information just like they did the metadata.

“The point is, people don’t read all that stuff when they hit “I accept.” If their information gets used for marketing, they’re the ones who allowed it to happen,” said Cramer.

“At this point, if you post something on Facebook, I would tell you, you have no reasonable or rational expectation of privacy with that information. In fact, I think you probably sign something with Facebook saying that,” Heitkamp added.

Blanton said, “It should be a wakeup call for all of us about the online reality and our digital footprints. This goes way beyond what the NSA can do. Think of all of the people who have signed up for Facebook pages and had their pages bite them in the rear, and keep them from getting hired because there are photos of them underage drinking or whatever else. Think about obscene responses people have made to a friend’s post—sort of the quick responses people send out.”

Heitkamp, Cramer and Blanton agreed that if you don’t want it out there, don’t post it. But the question, for Heitkamp at least, becomes, “Who would have ever imagined all of this information is being sold?” She and Cramer said they feel consumer education is crucial.

“What the NSA has done really jeopardizes Facebook, Google, Twitter, whatever. Especially if foreigners believe the business has a backdoor. Right now we are living on the idea that people will buy into the American Internet,” Blanton said.

With this as a growing concern, companies like Google are doing what they can to prevent the distrust. An article posted by The Associated Press April 14, 2014, states Google “has bought Titan Aerospace, a maker of solar-powered drones, saying it could help bring Internet access to remote parts of the world as well as solve other problems.”

However if this distrust in American government continues, their efforts may fail.

“Your government is lying to you, so yes, you should care,” Blanton said.

“The government is not going to protect you. Everybody thinks the company is going to protect you or the government is going to protect you. What I’m saying is that you need to educate yourself and protect yourself as the first line of defense,” said Heitkamp.