What the Average Joe should know about NSA

The National Security Agency has attracted the ire of the public recently. The actions of the organization have been justified time and again by officials, but the dust has hardly settled. Now civil libertarians and tech firms have started taking a stand against the organization and have asked the government for tighter rules and regulations. But what of the common man? Prof. Tung Yin, in a recent interview, highlighted many aspects that every American should keep in mind about the NSA.

The Patriot Act

A lot of ambiguity exists on where to draw the line with the Patriot Act. Many times a lot of what people feel relates to the act has nothing to do with it at all. As a piece of legislation, the Patriot Act needs some reformation, but its removal is not warranted. In the context of the NSA, Yin believes that “there are parts of the Patriot Act that made it easier for the government to get and to share what we call foreign intelligence information and this is a lot of what the NSA is going after. But you can see the issue here is that the police or the government has to have a probable cause to believe that the person has already committed a crime. And the NSA is not going to be in that position. They are in the position of trying to figure out, if we think this is what they are doing, who may be planning terrorist attacks or whatever. And they’re doing a big dragnet of everybody, trying to figure out among everybody ‘who should we be spending more time on’. So they can’t possibly meet that probable cause standard.”

LOVEINT: what you should know

When news broke that NSA employees had been tracking their exes and significant others through the database, it surprised no one. It is enough to make anyone paranoid, but there isn’t much you can do about it. Yin highlights that one wouldn’t know that the NSA had any data on them unless they were being dragged out into a criminal court case. And in that case anyone would have bigger problems to deal with than whether or not their lovelorn communication had been seen by government. But by some fluke if someone is able to find out that they are being spied on then they can follow through with a civil rights lawsuits for the violation of their privacy rights.

Facebook vs NSA

The amount of data being gathered by the NSA is nothing compared to what firms such as Google or Facebook have collected over the years. A debate in favour of the NSA has often revolved around the fact that people are so wired in these days. They put a lot of information on social media sites and blogs etc without a thought for security or privacy but argue heavily against the NSA when they list information. However, there is a key difference. Yin says, “Facebook is entirely voluntary. I know a few people who refused to join Facebook and if they refuse to join Facebook, then Facebook does nothing about that. So, you can opt out from Facebook, but you can’t really opt out from the NSA.”

The problem lies in the fact that the NSA cannot and will not exclude people from its monitoring lists. People can try to be as private as possible but they can’t tell the NSA to stay out of their data.

Personal Privacy vs National Security

There are double standards at play. President Obama, when he was just a candidate for presidency, he was almost always talking the same language as civil libertarians. Such is not the case right now. The reality is that real threats do exist. Yin adds, “It’d be easy to be extremely critical of the NSA. I’m not saying that I would fully defend what it’s doing, but I guess I would say that if we saw more of what it is that the NSA is coming across, we might have a slightly different view of what’s going on.”

The government makes a valid point when it says that it could prevent 9/11 attacks if it had the proper intel at that time. “If you compare the two like that, the tangible and immediate [security concerns] tend to win out. But it will always win out if that’s the way you look at it. Then civil liberties will invariably be compromised,” says Yin.

You’re on the list

In the aftermath of the revelations that the NSA has been extracting data many found their own unique ways of voicing their displeasure. Several people began posting dangerous words from the NSA’s checklist in their emails and online posts etc. The idea was to detract the NSA from whatever aims they’re trying to achieve. To some this may sound like a funny revenge to take against the government. But Yin warns that it isn’t so simple. “I think messing with the NSA is a high-risk proposition… if your idea is ‘I don’t like the NSA and I’d do what I can to make its job more difficult and so I’m going to start making myself look like a bad guy’, that’s what I mean by high-risk strategy, maybe you can get away with it for a while, and maybe the risk isn’t so much that you’ll be hauled off for some political prosecution. Rather, the problem is that the government zeroes in on somebody who’s doing that and they can find something else wrong that the person has done breaking the law. In the United States, there are over three thousand federal crimes.” It won’t be fun and games when the NSA zeros in on other aspects of your life just to get you into the trouble that you started as a joke.

At the end of the day what most people should know about the NSA is that it is here to stay. People could do ‘The New York Times test’ on their own posts online i.e., would you be okay with the data or information showing up on the front page of The New York Times? If not then don’t post it. This is easier said than done though. The NSA has a function to perform and it’s not going to stop performing said function. What people can do is to try and use PGP (pretty good privacy) programs and other such tools to keep their data out of the NSA’s hands.

Author Bio: Jessica has been writing about security and privacy issues for the last couple of years. She writes regularly for the Mobistealth blog and tweets @Jcarol429