Charlie Stross v. Former NSA Chief Keith Alexander: Compare and Contrast

It was my intent to make a series of posts about my virtual move over the next week or so, but I read this on-point post by the esteemed Mr. Stross on the way home tonight and knew I was going to have to write about it ASAP. It’s well worth reading the whole piece, but for those of you who would rather read my summary rather than a Charlie Stross original*, I’ll try to give you the gist.

Stross argues that the Edward Snowden leaks were the predictable and necessary result of the spy agency’s policy of exploiting rather than reporting security flaws as well as their efforts to introduce security flaws into standards that should have been secure. I think that’s a reasonably accurate CliffsNotes version. Let me know if you think I’ve misrepresented his views.

When I got home, I found a well-timed counterargument: Former head of the NSA Keith Alexander’s defense of the NSA practices. It’s his belief that the NSA’s use of known security flaws was justified. His case for the NSA, and again, correct me if I’m wrong, is that their job is to catch bad guys, and they couldn’t surrender any available tool that helped them do this regardless of the consequences. He also blames the fact that encryption is now relatively commonplace, which prevents them from instantly recognizing villains who, in the past, were the only ones to use encryption**.

As you might imagine, I agree strongly with Stross on this issue. If anything, Stross is a lot kinder than I would have been, and he calls for an end to the NSA. You get the sense that the NSA believed that they were the smart guys, and that they would be the only ones to take advantage of the weaknesses they built into the very backbone of the internet. That would mean that they were either incredibly naive, incredibly wrong about their intelligence compared to that of, say, the Russian mafia, or incredibly cynical in believing that leaving the cornerstone of the American economy open to compromise was, all things considered, worth doing.

One last thing as a reminder: Please don’t make this a story about Edward Snowden. The person who exposed what a titanic clusterfuck the NSA has become could have been anyone. The leak was going to happen and, frankly, it’s a good thing that it was someone who leaked it publicly to the press rather than surreptitiously to the Bad Guys. Of course, thanks to the NSA’s efforts to make the internet insecure, that may have already happened.

* I have tremendous confidence that the number of people who would rather read my summary rather than Stross’ work is an very, very low number. As it should be.

** I regard this development as a good thing and I wish encryption were stronger, easier to use, and even more prevalent. I also wish I had a pony, but I’m not getting that either.

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