How the NSA Can Win the Minds and Hearts of the People
Lots of uproar about the activities of the National Security Agency of late, which is interesting in several ways. Most of the commentators do not seem to have a very good idea of what the NSA actually does, and even those who do know are probably out of the loop unless currently employed by the NSA, in which case they’re most unlikely to be making any comments at all.
Let’s apply a little cold logic to the topic and see what happens.
I doubt there is anyone who thinks the 9/11 attacks were faked. I posit that because there are still people out there, not all of whom wear tin foil on their heads, that believe that NASA did not land a man on the moon in 1969. In strong contrast to the moon landing, then, everyone seems to accept that the attacks on the World Trade Center were real, that they were acts of terrorism, and that we would like to see them repeated never.
We live in a world where every thought and plan and idea, whether a terrorist plot or a grocery list, is posted on some social network somewhere. To think that the NSA would not look there would be silly. It would also not be in our best interests.
But what of our right to privacy? I attended and spoke at a marketing conference in Seattle two years ago, and what I remember best is a statement from one of the “big gun” speakers. Of course, I can’t remember his name… In response to a question about the right to privacy he said “Privacy is gone. Totally. Completely. And it’s not coming back.” The most chilling part of this was his tone, which was utterly matter of fact and that same used to tell someone that the sun rose this morning. He’s correct. That is the ultimate cost of using Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, hi-tech phones, and every other “free” social media for every waking thought and moment of our day.
If bad people and governments are hacking into major data banks on what seems to be a daily basis to access charge card numbers and other info, would we want our own security agency to back away and have nothing to do with it out of moral purity? Would that be better for us in the long run?
With the FBI, CIA, NSA, and probably a dozen other agencies ferreting out information anyway they can, not to mention what the people we are not paying are doing, it might be time to admit that the privacy horse has run out of the barn – and we let it go in our quest for more goodies (“free” ones, of course) that work faster and better.
Do we actually think there are government employees sitting around reading every one of our e-mails? If I had such a job I’d soon be jabbing forks into my own eyes to make the horror stop, and that is just if I were reading my own e-mails, which of course are the epitome of wit and humor and interest. Every one of them.
In talking to a former NSA employee and a current Microsoft person of intellect (see, I don’t make all of this stuff up) I think I learned that what is desired is not the actual content of phone calls, e-mails, and other contacts, but the patterns. After all, even a terrorist of diminished capacity is going to be using some sort of code. Sometimes a message of “Don’t forget the kid’s ballet recital” is actually just a reminder about a dance recital. In fact, 99.9999% of the time. But the patterns? Yes, there is work to do there. By using large masses of info and math formulas far beyond the Calculus class I barely passed, you can scan senders and recipients en masse and link together patterns – assuming you have truly monstrous amounts of info and computers that can go to forever and back in seconds – which all of the security agencies have. The patterns will form links to a cascading torrent of Venn diagrams that will data mine down to what we want – terrorists. Let us not quibble for the moment the elephant in the room – who defines who is and is not a “terrorist”?
Privacy appears to be gone, and lots of “bad people” are going to be combing through the electronic dumpsters of our person lives for the conceivable future. If we want to use our tax dollars to provide some sense of security (probably fictional, but just as the sun coming out from behind a cloud on a very cold day makes you feel warmer on your motorcycle, any little bit helps) then we may have to accept what the NSA is doing.
Even though we don’t know what that is.
At the end of the day, I don’t think the NSA has an operations and legality problem at all.
They have a marketing problem.
And I can solve it.
Here is what needs to happen. The NSA will start up a “game” on Facebook and other media called the “National Security Survey.” It will be free! Nothing sells like “free,” even though what is usually labeled as such is… not. Entrants will be asked questions, some of them apparently innocuous, and some weird and funny. This will be similar to the “MMPI,” which many of you took in college.
Funny story. As a callow freshman at the University of Minnesota, I was the brave soul who raised his hand in my Psychology 101 lab class and asked “What does MMPI stand for?”
The response was a cold stare and words spoken with all the passion of the dead. “The Minnesota Multi-Phasic Personality Index. It was invented here.”
As entrants answer questions, they will amass points in a quest for a number of rewards. This will work just like however “Candy Crush” and other Facebook games work. Just like crack cocaine, I’ve never tried any of them, but they seem to be incredibly addictive on short acquaintance.
Entrants will win stars for each level of achievement. You can become a “One Star Bronze National Security Asset,” for example. To gain stars you will be allowed to progress to the next level. Each level will offer you the chance to answer more questions about the media you use, silly and inane questions, and how often you use media, and your favorite music, and at what times of day. And what you would name a pet pony. What sites you visit. Who is on your “Friends” list. What people you have “de-Friended.” Eventually you will be (Ta Da!) a “5 Star Bronze National Security Asset.” Then you may progress to the “Silver” level and start over.
Eventually, of course, you can brag to your friends, much like people do with “Candy Crush” or “Farmland,” that you are now a “5 Star Gold National Security Asset.” That will entitle you to feedback from ACTUAL NSA REPRESENTATIVES, who will occasionally ask your opinion on VITAL SECURITY matters, or perhaps ask you to analyze a message. Which might be real. Or not.
By this time, of course, you will have eagerly invited NSA to pore over every communication you make to anyone at any time.
NSA will not need any congressional oversight or secret committees, and they will not have broken any current or likely future laws.
If you think this sounds ridiculous, let me close with what lies under this tip of the iceberg of personal intrusion.
I’m pretty sure it would work.
Copyright 2014 David Preston