Sunday, January 08, 2006

No Such Agency


If you make a phone call to someone in another country, and use any of a certain lexicon of words, especially in certain combinations, odds are that your conversation has been professionally recorded and analyzed to determine whether or not you represent a threat to the National Security of the United States. Not just in the past few years either, but anytime in the past couple decades. The stories are actually far behind the technology, and the technology is still chasing the need. In case you are curious about who has been listening in on your calls, I can’t give you specific names, but I can assure that the eavesdroppers work for the National Security Agency (NSA).

In true American tradition, and paying homage to the need to advertise everything these days, the NSA has a web site, complete with virtual tour. If you go there, you will note that the NSA site is also linked to something called “Central Security Service” (this is tied to cryptology in specific, and that’s really as far as the NSA/CSS will go about them) . While the site is interesting and attractive, it actual has quite a bit of detail to it, which is a surprise. It’s a savvy place, which not only details the history of the NSA and what it does (officially, anyway), it includes a plan for declassifying historically significant information, and even includes a cartoon character named “T.Top”, a hip hop turtle with a goatee and a team of cartoon friends dubbed “CryptoKids: America’s Future Codemakers and Codebreakers” - it’s a way to get kids interested in the mathematics of cryptology and ciphers, and to give the NSA an idea who’s interested. Hey, it’s no worse than the cookies embedded in the Nickelodeon site. It also shows that the NSA is quite a bit further along in figuring out how to sell themselves to the country, and how to keep silent what they want to protect. As an example, when the story broke (illegally, by the way) about the NSA plan to monitor international electronic communications involving suspected terrorist plans and activities, many Americans accused the CIA of conducting the operations, even though the NSA was specifically named. Even though the NSA is actually as old as the CIA, is far larger in terms of budget, staffing, and allotted resources, it remains largely unknown to most Americans, and even when Hollywood goes after the NSA as a stock villain (a common practice, actually) , the average viewer often does not realize that such an agency really does exist. And unlike the CIA, the NSA is fully authorized, within certain limits, to conduct surveillance on U.S. soil.

But while the NSA is intensely interested in monitoring communications of likely interest, it is even more intent on maintaining something called Information Assurance (IA). To put it in simpler terms, the USA has long held a commanding lead in electronic surveillance and secure communications. This means that our enemies and rivals have been working hard not just to catch up, but to find ways to destabilize our secure communications. Viruses, worms, trojan horses and the like, are not only malicious pranks created by individuals with perverse senses of humor, but are also major programs planned and coordinated with the intent of finding a fatal flaw in our infrastructure. Criminals understand that it’s possible to steal thousands of dollars each from victims, by gaining access to their credit card accounts; governments understand that it is theoretically possible to destablize a government by wrecking confidence in its financial structure, through malicious destruction or corruption of, say, the trade records at the New York Stock Exchange, or the wire transfer protocols of Chase Bank, or any of hundreds of similar scenarios. You may not think that National Security depends on your ability to trust the security of an online purchase or bill pay, but the NSA believes so.

Just something to think about.

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