When does technical competence trump historical performance

The joint announcement last week by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Defense (DoD) to formalize a cooperative relationship between the two agencies to provide coordinated cybersecurity operations to protect government computing networks directs the National Security Agency (NSA) to furnish personnel, equipment, and a variety of support services to DHS. The collaboration between DHS and NSA — and in particular, the NSA’s role in government network monitoring activities given its recent practices of warrantless surveillance — has raised concerns in some circles as to whether the efforts under the joint initiative will be conducted with sufficient consideration and protection of privacy. One response to these concerns sidesteps the privacy issue somewhat as suggests that the technical expertise that the NSA possesses is sufficiently valuable that know-how should trump any lingering worries about safeguarding civil liberties. Leaving the details of the argument aside (and without making a determination of the validity of this argument one way or the other), this line of reasoning can be seen as an exercise in trust, or more specifically, of how to properly assess the trustworthiness of those involved in the joint cybersecurity initiative.

While the NSA’s warrantless electronic surveillance program was halted in 2006 following a federal court ruling that found the program activities to be unconstitutional, the policy and legal debates about the NSA’s actions are far from settled, as the government continues to argue the justification for the program on national security grounds and that federal officials should not be held accountable (a position with which the federal courts have, to date, agreed in holding the activities to be illegal, but disagreed in finding government employees liable). The fact that the legal issues surrounding the NSA’s program remain unresolved (one of the key cases is currently under appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court) with the government persisting in its assertions that individual victims of surveillance shouldn’t be able to present challenges (or even to know the full details of the program) helps explain why the NSA is not widely viewed as trustworthy with respect to looking out for the interests of the citizens the government ostensibly represents and protects. There is little debate over the position the NSA enjoys as the government’s premier agency where cybersecurity matters are concerned, so the implicit argument that goes along with placing trust in the NSA is that its superior technical expertise outweighs any potential misgivings about respecting privacy or otherwise behaving in ways that encapsulate individual interests.