Can Americans Adapt to a Changing World?

Since the 1990s, the cyber world has turned into something we could not have envisioned.  There is the connection of different cultures, creation of a smaller world, speedier communications, and answers at one’s fingertips.  Along with these considerable benefits have come grave disadvantages that bring about a lot of risks and dangers.  American Thinker interviewed FBI experts, Michael Hayden, and Sharyl Attkisson regarding the privacy issue in the cyber world.

All the former CIA and FBI experts interviewed agree that many Americans have changed their behavior and attitudes, becoming a lot more distrustful today.  Michael Hayden noted, “A certain fraction of the population is so distrustful of the government they don’t want it to have any access.  We have not yet decided on what we want to allow the government to do in terms of the cyber domain regarding security and privacy.  My life experience has told me that the fear of the government should not come from institutions, but from rogue individuals.”  Furthermore, he warns that someone’s computer system can be affected through cyber-espionage that attempts to steal information and through a computer network attack designed to delay, degrade, and disrupt. 

Sharyl Attkisson commented to American Thinker that she has “personally experienced the travesty that can happen when a few bad actors misuse their power and authority.”  In her book, Stonewalled, she documented how classified information was embedded in her computer, listening devices were installed, and her e-mails read.  She wrote, “So a government-related entity has infiltrated my computer, email, and likely my smartphones, and that included illegally planting classified documents.”  For those who accuse her of paranoia, both she and her employer at the time, CBS News, have determined through forensic analysis that her computer was remotely “accessed by an unauthorized, external, unknown party on multiple occasions late in 2012.”

Even though Attkisson has actually experienced government overreach, she directly noted that she understands the tension between “the government’s need to invade our privacy to protect us and the possibility it will overreach and misuse the information.  Americans must be wary of government interference, even when ultimately agreeing it should occur.  Yet I have always been a big supporter of the effort to protect Americans even if it means giving up some of our traditional privacy.” 

Michael Hayden argues that the million-dollar question is: how to balance allowing the government tools to protect Americans, while keeping a careful watch as they use those tools?  For example, metadata is all about the collection of phone numbers that can be associated with terrorists.  It is about gathering information that may become valuable to intelligence as evidence becomes available.

Shawn Henry, the former FBI executive assistant director of the cyber branch who now heads a cyber security firm, contends that there are protocols in place to protect civil liberties.  “There is not this grand conspiracy to violate people’s civil liberties.  The government is not that efficient.  People employed in national security agencies did so to serve our country, not to read people’s e-mails.  The FBI and the government cannot troll the internet unless there is a reason, and they need a search warrant, which authorizes any review of communications.  There are more restrictions of the government’s ability to scroll for information than is readily available to individuals and private companies.”

Dick Held, the former FBI deputy assistant director of the National Infrastructure and Computer Intrusion Program, who now consults, says Americans who have fears regarding their privacy should look within: the Apple App to find the phone, a Facebook app where our friends can find us, and the different Twitter postings.  “People should be more concerned with what these companies will do than the NSA.  Private companies know more about you than government ever will, and they market it as well.  We get excited about these new devices and programs but do not get excited about what they do to us.  I hear the argument ‘I don’t want to give up my civil liberties.’  Yet you tell Facebook every place you go, where you are, and what you are doing.  The reality is, we have given up our civil liberties to these companies.  Think about it: if your friends know these things, so do your enemies.”

He gave American Thinker two examples.  After reading the New York Times’ scathing editorial on the NSA and metadata, within days he received an e-mail about his reading habits that focused on profitability, and thought, “How hypocritical.”  The other example involved his friend.  They were hiking in Glacier Park, and his friend’s doctor called and said his heart rate was off the charts.  The doctor knew where his friend was from the device implanted in his chest that monitored his mechanics.

All warn that the cyber dangers are like a chess game.  There is the constant moving of the pieces, where one action leads to another in order to neutralize the system.  Michael Hayden feels that it is actually worse, since it “takes less energy and less time to attack than to defend.  It is harder to react, because the internet was not originally built to be secure.  We need to figure out the big questions regarding law and privacy.”

Sharyl Attkisson agrees and would like responses to these questions: “Were less broad, less intrusive methods tried and proven ineffective before each more intrusive effort was launched?  If so, are the more intrusive methods providing measurably better results?  What independent controls and audits are in place to guarantee protection of private information from abuse by those with political or criminal motivations?  Should the public be excluded from policy debates about these issues?”

All agree that America’s life has changed considerably since the 1990s, but in many ways, people have not changed the way they act.  The cyber world has opened up new possibilities and challenges to people’s privacy, yet people still think in an old-fashioned manner.  For example, regarding the Sony hacked e-mails, people were more concerned with the gossip content than the fact that North Korea had hacked done the hacking.  As Dick Held summarized, “[t]he world has changed, and we must see it in its proportions.  We have to stop thinking it was yesterday.  The cyber world is an enormous asset, but is also a monster.”

The author writes for American Thinker.  She has done book reviews and author interviews and has written a number of national security, political, and foreign policy articles.