A healthy dose of skepticism
At a wedding years ago, I met a young man who worked at the National Security Agency. He was a groomsman and I was a bridesmaid, and we were spending a lot of time together at various events.
“I hear you work at the NSA,” I said, in an effort to make small talk.
The young man frowned.
“I really wish you hadn’t heard that,” he said. “I’m afraid I can’t talk about it.”
I learned two things from this conversation: People who work for the NSA are highly secretive, and they do not regard “So what do you do?” as a benign question. Of course, the young man’s evasiveness only made me more curious about the NSA. He was a nice guy, and I enjoyed hanging out with him. But I wondered about his job. What did it entail? Would I disapprove of it?
A few years ago, a mutual friend jokingly suggested I marry the young man, since we’re both single. I wrinkled my nose. “I’m not sure I approve of his line of work,” I said. “Whatever it is.”
The NSA has been in the news a lot lately.
Last week, a former CIA employee named Edward Snowden leaked top secret documents revealing details about the scope of the government’s domestic surveillance programs. One of the key revelations concerned a program called PRISM, which enables the NSA to gain access to the private communications of popular Internet services such as Google. In the days since, government officials have been quick to reassure the public that this information isn’t being misused.
“If people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress and don’t trust federal judges to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution, due process and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here,” President Barack Obama said.
In other words: Just trust us.
I’m a reserved person, and trust has never come particularly easy for me.
That young man I met at my friends’ wedding seemed like a trustworthy guy, but I’m reluctant to assume that every single person he works with meets my high standards of trustworthiness. In general, I don’t like the idea of people listening to my phone calls or reading my email or accessing whatever else they think they ought to have access to. I abide by the law, but there aren’t very many people I’m eager to share my secrets with.
In addition, I’m prone to Kafka-esque fears.
I worry that I’m going to wind up on the government no-fly list for no apparent reason, or be accused of a crime that I didn’t commit, or lose all of my vital documents and somehow be unable to prove that I’m really a U.S. citizen. In particular, I’m aware of how information that isn’t really all that damaging can be made to look damaging. And I also have a vague sense of history. For instance, I know about the FBI’s round-the-clock surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. — about how the agency bugged his hotel rooms and wiretapped his phones.
I don’t think I’m alone in wondering why I should trust every single person who works at the NSA to handle the vast trove of information the agency has collected responsibly.
On The Atlantic magazine website, writer Conor Friedersdorf wonders exactly what type of American we should trust to work at the NSA.
“Support for what the NSA does depends on regarding their employees as abstractions,” he writes. “Americans know there’s no type of human that should be trusted with that kind of power. They just forget it’s humans we’re trusting, not some disembodied stand-in for America itself in a cubicle. No offense, NSA types — I’m sure you wouldn’t trust a journalist like me with your metadata either!”
If nothing else, the recent controversy over NSA surveillance raises interesting questions about who we trust with our secrets, and why.
Personally, I love learning about other people’s secrets, and I love sharing them with others. It doesn’t require any great leap of imagination to conclude that I would make a terrible NSA employee. Which is probably typical of most journalists, since we regard information as something to be gathered and given to the public, and we try to question the motives of people in power.
On the other hand, we’re also trained to see stories from different perspectives and angles.
Perhaps these NSA programs really have stopped or disrupted dozens of terrorist attacks, as NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander claimed last week. Perhaps they really have made us safer, and the recent disclosures about how they work threaten our security.
Or perhaps we just don’t know enough about how these programs function, and how they’re used and why they’re necessary. Perhaps we haven’t fully sorted out what privacy means in the digital age, or how much government secrecy is appropriate.
When I met that nice young man who works for the NSA, he wouldn’t tell me what he did for a living, or even say the name of his employer. At the time, it was a big joke. “He’s so secretive!” the bride and groom said, when I recounted my conversation with the young man for them. “Ha ha ha!” Today my encounter with the young man no longer seems like a joke. I wouldn’t mind knowing a bit more about what he does, and what his employer does.
Really, all I want is information.
Why is that so hard to come by?
Foss Forward makes a weekly appearance in print, in The Gazette’s Saturday Lifestyles section. You can email Sara at firstname.lastname@example.org.