I was joking the other day with a friend about how if James Bond were real, could you imagine what it would be like if the New York Times did one of their breathless, Pulitzer-baiting exposés? I would imagine the following great prose:
“Tucked deep inside the national security apparatus is an elite team of international covert agents who seemingly act as free agents – trotting across the globe from one luxury destination to another, spending funds in defiance of budget realities, and apparently feel free to harm or kill people with complete disregard to due process or local sensitivities.”
“One agent in particular, known by his code name ‘007’, is regularly given assignments of great importance despite his well-documented alcohol consumption issues and what one source deemed ‘pathological womanizing’, both of which could compromise his missions at any time.”
“One intelligence agency executive, speaking on a condition of anonymity, also expressed frustration over the fact that as other government agencies are being forced to fuel efficient domestic automobiles, 007 never seems to be in anything but outrageously expensive exotic automobiles.”
Expecting nothing less from media reporting on current events, I was hardly shocked to learn that the National Security Agency has a unit dedicated to implanting bugs and malware into all sorts of electronics, including sacred iPhones.
Shocked. I am just shocked that an intelligence agency whose mission is to gather information on enemies of the United States would stoop to the level of breaking into machines to insert rogue components or find backdoors to mobile devices.
As a child of the 1980s I feel compelled to say the following: “McFly?! Hello!?!?”
What’s next, a report on how the U.S. military kills people? Or worse yet, the fact that they have groups of people whose sole purpose in life is to plan how to kill people and find new, even more efficient ways to do so? Sheesh.
Look, I understand the concerns about the NSA’s intelligence collection activities. It is hard to hear about all of the data being collected—and the scope of the targets—and not have a little heartburn about the actions being undertaken. We are a nation that is always mindful of the possibility of slipping into an Orwellian-type of surveillance state. So it is no surprise there has been a strong, visceral reaction to the disclosures made by Edward Snowden.
At a certain point, however, we have to remember that data-collection, spying, and yes, surreptitiously accessing mobile devices and other electronics, is one of the main purposes of the NSA’s existence. Heck, the NSA even says that is its mission on its website:
“Collect (including through clandestine means), process, analyze, produce, and disseminate signals intelligence information and data for foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes to support national and departmental missions.”
If there is concern about the NSA exceeding the boundaries of its mission, Congress and the White House can address that. If there are concerns about how it goes about its mission, that too is a topic for Congress and the White House to address. Even the courts can weigh in – and I am sure they will.
However, we cannot have lost in all this noise is the fact that the NSA is in fact supposed to be spying on people; and I would hope that they are trying their hardest to break into devices and figure out how to crack encryption codes. It would not do us any good as a nation if we said “Well, the average consumer uses this type of encryption, so we better not crack that code.”
The hullabaloo over the NSA having developed a way to break into iPhones is the most mystifying to me. Why is the fact that the NSA has developed a capability to break into one particular device so disconcerting? Think about the alternative – do we really want al Qaeda anxiously lining up at the Karachi Apple Store to buy the newest iPhone knowing that NSA cannot break into it? I don’t think so.
Indeed I would say the opposite is true: it is incumbent upon the NSA to figure out how to hack into all types of devices so it can collect timely and accurate intelligence. If they did not do so, we would be far worse off as a nation.
At the end of the day I, like many people, welcome a debate over what kind of information the NSA should be collecting and from whom. However, I also think a debate that is driven by emotion – namely a sense of violated personal space – thanks to revelations that the NSA can break into consumer products is counterproductive. It blurs the line between honest debate and hyperbole. And given the threats we face in the world today, we need a detached rationale debate.
So, count me in as shrugging his shoulders over the possibility of the NSA peeking at my iPhone. It’s unlikely to happen, and if it does they’re welcome to see my high score on Temple Run 2.
Brian E. Finch (@brianefinch) is a partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, where he focuses on cyber security issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.