Every now and then, the seemingly black and white world of good ideas and bad ones, whether from a Liberal’s (such as I am) or a Conservative’s point of view, veers off into a distinctly gray area. Great Britain’s video surveillance system is one that immediately springs to mind; whether or not Lindsey Lohan should have been sentenced to life without parole rather than just 90 days is another. Such is the case with “Perfect Citizen”…at first glance a seemingly Orwellian foray into the government of Big Brother spying on it’s own citizens. “Perfect Citizen” , a $100 million dollar NSA program, would, according to Wired News, “monitor the networks of utilities and other “critical” infrastructure to identify potential electronic attacks”. On it’s face that sounds great- no one doubts that these days foreign powers and pimply teenaged geeks are actively trying to hack our networks and World War III may very well be fought not with atomic weapons, but keystrokes. But is that all “Perfect Citizen” is?
According to the plan, “Perfect Citizen” would “embed surveillance probes in privately owned networks”, presumably banks and utility companies and such, looking for suspicious behavior. Still all well and good; after all, these would be the most likely targets of a cyber-attack and a successful breach would cause massive chaos. But given the abundance of privately owned computer security companies and firewalls, is a massive governmental surveillance even needed? And anyway, “Perfect Citizen” is not a firewall, it’s a spy tool; on it’s own it wouldn’t stop a hack attack…it would be just looking around to see what’s out there.
And although the threat of an attack is real enough, it’s so far not as real as has been reported. Wired also tells us that the Wall Street Journal reporter, Siobhan Gorman, got a front page story that alleged both the Russians and Chinese had hacked our grid and left malware behind, though no proof of it has ever been forthcoming. As well, both the government and 60 Minutes reported that hackers breached Brazil’s electrical grid, while the more likely culprit was nothing more than soot in the system. Google did get hit by the Chinese in retaliation over their decision to not assist that government in locating dissidents any longer, a correction of an earlier bone-headed move to do just that. So it happens. But Google, not the NSA, fixed it too.
I can agree with the government being able to isolate itself instantly- in a crisis, I can live for a couple of days without access to any dot gov’s. But even that shouldn’t have to happen; the government should be able to keep a spare laptop around that’s outside the lockdown to keep us informed about who they’re killing…something inexpensive from Best Buy. And if they’re gonna kick out $100 mil, it should be to help idiots from AT&T or PG&E protect themselves, not just to spy. Shit, they can go to any high school and find a bunch of kids to do that.
And that’s the first part of a two-fold problem…supposedly smart, multi billion dollar corporations should be able to figure out ways to protect themselves, but don’t always do it. The second part is that, given the nature of our governmental system, our leadership, and therefore it’s agendas, change every four or eight years. Even if it starts out under one president as a benign tool to protect us, what’s to stop the next guy from using it as weapon against his own internal political enemies? As a Liberal, I’d let Obama do it, but be terrified if Dick Cheney was in charge. Conservatives should feel the same way, with only the names reversed.
There’s also a cyber security bill up for vote in the Senate that would give…”the president the authority to seize control of their networks in an emergency.” Again, it’s a question of what “an emergency” would be. George Bush shut down all flights after 9/11…I could see the logic of that. But say we had the net in 1973 when the Washington Post was breaking the story of Nixon and Watergate…I have no doubt that Tricky Dick would have manufactured an “emergency” to shut down the web to keep that story quiet. That’s where the problem is.
Or maybe the big problem is that shutting down the net is benign. We give our presidents the power to destroy the world with atomic weapons, but doing so means, well, it’s done and you can’t undo it. In a way this is more dangerous because you can turn the net on and off according to your whim. And by extension, if you can shut the whole thing down it also means you can shut just certain parts of it down as well and just leave the parts you want running. And in a Democratic society, that’s probably the most dangerous thing of all.