Ghost in the Machine
You know that whisper you hear? The one coming from deep within, echoing off the darker corners of your mind? Say hello to your inner conspiracy theorist. We all have one, just like a conscience, and like a conscience a few of our inner conspiracy theorists whisper louder than the rest compelling us to act, write, or sometimes just plain whistle. But whether you choose to ignore that whisper or give in to its more sinister suspicions, from time to time you have to admit …it’s telling the truth. The NSA is watching you. While I cannot confirm the other inane ramblings your inner conspiracy theorist claims to be true, thanks to Eric Snowden and the brave reporting of The Guardian and The New York Times, I can indeed verify the very scary fact that there is a ghost in your machine.
For years the NSA has been working to deliberately weaken commercial crypto standards and insert back doors that only they have privileged access to. Cryptography is the art and science of keeping information secure from unintended audiences, in short “encrypting it”. This is not the first time the NSA has tried to do this; however, this is the first time we have seen the existence of long since implemented systems. The NSA tried to do this publicly in the mid-90s with a device called the “Clipper chip” and yet they were denied by Congress. Now they are covertly doing what our own government refused to let them do overtly. All of these programs, in their essence, are being conducted and operated without congressional approval. An unintended negative side effect occurs when you weaken commercial crypto portals: it exposes everyone who uses these portals to possible interception from actual bad guys who manage to discover the NSA’s entry point. There’s no way the NSA can guarantee other groups won’t find the weaknesses once it’s introduced or somehow get access to its back doors. And it’s likely that many of these access points already have…
In addition, the NSA has been working to improve its decryption capabilities in ways that don’t degrade commercial crypto for anyone else. The details are yet unclear. However it is clear that some encryption based software companies have been complicit in giving them access to portals advertised as being secure. These are all matters the NSA is chartered to do, and it does nothing to harm general use of commercial cryptography. It’s true, revealing the extent of the NSA’s success in this area might warn actual bad guys away from commercial crypto that they thought was safe and degrade the NSA’s ability to track them. But people have a right to know that there is indeed a ghost in their machines and no law was ever passed giving the NSA the right to haunt your personal computer. Still, while you’re surfing the internet, a conscience on your shoulder rides the same wave as you, except this one doesn’t appear in the affirmation of an angel or a devil but rather Uncle Sam. We already learned from Mr. Snowden’s last gift to us that the NSA was able to surmise the sum of a person’s entire existence by the characteristics expressed in their personal online habits. Analysts report they can even gage whether two individuals are actually in love. We have also learned that bitter exes who were employed by the NSA used these systems to keep careful watch over unrequited love interests and those they were in relationships with. All of this being said, doesn’t it make the world wide web feel just a bit smaller? Now that we know the conspiracy theorist prattling away in our brains was correct what is the next course of action? Personally I’m going to give that voice a listen to a little bit more often. Because while the NSA’s guardian angels are meant to make me feel safer all I feel is uneasy. At least to me, climbing through the murky info strings of the web has never felt quite so eerie now that we know there is indeed a ghost in our machines…So to all our fans at the NSA, hopefully one day logic will prevail.