Too many bureaucratic acronyms are being tossed about lately, like NSA, TSA, DHS, and one that isn’t a federal agency, PII.* When you hear these being used by lawmakers you can bet it has something to do with their failed obligations to protect your privacy or our nation’s security. That doesn’t mean your privacy is going to be protected or our country is secure. It means that a lot of politicians are worried about what might happen if they don’t convince us that these things are being attended to. Face it, if you are looking for protection you best look somewhere other than Capitol Hill.
Is the issue security or protecting privacy?
That was a trick question. The real issue is neither of these things. It is about government not doing its job and being forced to make excuses and cover its tracks while making us think Washington is doing us a favor.
When it comes to protecting privacy we still fall back on the Privacy Act of 1974. Promises from the White House about the USA Freedom Act summed up Washington’s more contemporary take on our concerns over Big Brother:
The government will no longer hold these records; telephone providers will. The Act also includes other changes to our surveillance laws — including more transparency — to help build confidence among the American people that your privacy and civil liberties are being protected. But if Congress doesn’t act by midnight tomorrow, these reforms will be in jeopardy, too.1
In their push to get the bill passed House Republicans threw in the same buzzwords Obama used: transparency, civil liberties, privacy, and the most important word of all, “protect.”2 Don’t think for a moment that this is coming from federal concerns about violating your rights. Protecting your privacy is an issue because government spying ceased to be a secret.
Do you feel less violated now that the Freedom Act passed? Four million government employees who found out that their information has been jeopardized probably take a broader view of what privacy protection means. Being spied on for doing nothing is one thing. Having your identity hijacked because the custodian of your records was not able to keep them secure is quite another.
Security blunders meet bureaucratic failure
Before news of the airport screening report got loose we heard from the TSA inspector general about another problem:
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is not properly managing the maintenance of its airport screening equipment. Specifically, TSA has not issued adequate policies and procedures to airports for carrying out equipment maintenance-related responsibilities.3
Jeh Johnson tried to put a happier face on the newest report about our government’s security lapses. He suggests we put the findings in perspective:
Red Team testing of the aviation security network has been part of TSA’s mission advancement for 13 years. The numbers in these reports never look good out of context, but they are a critical element in the continual evolution of our aviation security.4
Freedom and national security are an odd mix. We are guaranteed one and don’t really know how government is faring with the other. If it’s any clue, the USA Freedom Act includes a section on “Prevention of Nuclear Terrorism,” something that might best be furthered by ending our interminable game playing with Iran.
Don’t confuse security, liberty, and privacy protection
Whether phone records or last year’s tax returns, stealing private data is a lot easier when there are mountains of it socked away in federal servers. The IRS recently revealed that it had been compromised again, giving up the data of as many as 100,000 Americans. Now the Office of Personnel Management has 4 million more compromised identities to deal with.
Keeping a jihadist from doing something terrible or a hacker from stealing personal information the government has a legal right to possess is a lot more difficult than making a promise to not stash away our phone records in some secret underground vault. Yes, it’s good that the Freedom Act was passed, though anyone doing something the government might want to investigate should know not to talk about it over the telephone or in an Internet chat room. After all, most of the responsibility for protecting our privacy falls on us.
The USA Freedom Act doesn’t make up for privacy and security lapses that really hurt us. The cynical among us might conclude that the uproar over the bill was about government caught snooping and being forced to toss some crumbs of privacy protection cake to the people while larger threats like a leaking Southwest border, nuclear threat from Iran, failure of airport screening security, and countless ways our PII can be jeopardized become more dangerous. So the question remains, which would you prefer? Are you more bothered that the NSA was keeping records of your phone calls to your elderly aunt in Pittsburgh, or what might be on the laptop or in the pocket of the person sitting next to you on a plane?
*Personally identifiable information