The NSA And Human Frailty

Last week the Inspector General of the National Security Agency admitted to 12 instances where NSA employees engaged in “intentional misuse” of data gathering programs.  Most of the dozen incidents, predictably, involved NSA employees spying on their spouses or significant others.

It’s not clear how often NSA employees cross the line and engage in this kind of conduct.  The Inspector General letter was in response to a request from Republican Senator Charles Grassley, who sought information on “intentional and willful” abuse of NSA surveillance authority, and the letter reports on “substantial instances” where employees were caught engaging in “intentional misuse” of NSA data-gathering capabilities.  Who knows how often such spying goes undetected, or is covered up by a phony excuse for the surveillance, or is deemed not sufficiently “substantial” to warrant disclosure?

NSA analysts are human, like the rest of us.  If you hire a person to work for a super-secret entity and give him incredibly powerful surveillance tools that allow him to track and gather confidential information about anyone, there is going to be significant temptation to use that access to check out girlfriends, ex-girlfriends, family members, that loudmouth neighbor, and the bullies who made seventh grade a miserable time.  In one telling incident, an NSA employee was caught improperly reading the emails of his girlfriend and six other people on the first day he was given access to surveillance programs.  The guy just couldn’t resist the opportunity to snoop on his girlfriend — and I’m guessing he’s not alone.

People are people, whether they work for the NSA or the local Starbucks.  Give them a chance to listen in on conversations or read private emails that might mention their name, and at least some of them are going to do it.  With the lack of meaningful oversight of the NSA, due to its super-secret status, the temptation to dip into forbidden territory must be even greater.

We really need to revisit what we are doing with our surveillance programs and figure out a way to address the routine gathering of huge amounts of information — and the inevitable abuses that follow.  In the meantime, people who are dating NSA employees should be on guard.