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Rebecca Abrahams Headshot

All Shook Up -- National Security, The Patriot Act and Prism

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Co-authored by Stephen Bryen, CEO of Ziklag Systems.

The United States has been shaken up by the news of pervasive U.S. government spying that touches millions of American citizens. The first swing of the bat was news that Verizon Business Services was providing on a daily basis a dump of all its land line and mobile metadata to the NSA as a result of a secret type of court order. While the Verizon story was a leak, it is easy to figure that all the other Verizon phone services, and their competitors such as AT&T, Spring and T-Mobile (and the lesser players) are also coughing up their meta data.

Just as the Verizon story was peaking, another story hit the wires, also originating from the London Guardian. This, much bigger story, said that pursuant to another court order, all the social media including VOIP favorites such as Skype, were being mass downloaded by the government. All the stories about these channels being encrypted, turn out to be only partly the truth. The encryption is not a problem, it seems, if you are inside the servers at Microsoft or Google or Amazon or any of the other players. And NSA, according to its PRISM program (which was revealed by the Guardian) was clearly inside the servers. Of course all the "biggies" immediately denied this: but the truth is that they are under a legal obligation to give such denials.

How does this come about? Public officials, to the extent they will tell, say that the Patriot Act is the authority under which they are authorized to conduct surveillance "suspected terrorists, those suspected of engaging in computer fraud or abuse, and agents of a foreign power who are engaged in clandestine activities." While terrorism is the explanation most often given, the mandate is much broader than that, and it is highly subjective.

In fact, the U.S. government has made a decision that to effectively maintain coherence in government and protect national security, the full-blown Patriot Act is an essential component. We live in an age of rapidly proliferating Internet connectivity, social media, and communications globalization. In this exponentially growing sector, nation states survival may be threatened as never before.

Consider, first of all, the security of leaders in government and industry. They live in a fishbowl environment where their every move can be tracked and every sentence they write or speak intercepted. Not only, but the actions of leaders can open important information doors for cyber thieves by outlining connections such as relationships and alliances that can be exploited. On top of all this, leaders can be represented fraudulently by impostors fakers, and "mal-verts." This can lead to significant mistakes, errors, frauds and disasters.

Consider also the security of technology and the protection of intellectual property. There are credible studies that show that U.S. technology is being stolen of huge value, estimated as some $300 billion annually. The U.S. spends roughly $645 billion annually on defense, which includes all war spending and personnel costs. About $128 billion is spent on procurement each year. So the cyber thefts of defense designs are double what is spent on what is being purchased. When you add what is being sucked out of the private sector, it is clear that trying to prevent these crimes is, and must be, a priority if the country's prosperity is to continue, its social compact preserved, and its security safeguarded.

Finally physical threats to America and American citizens is also a major worry. The Patriot Act is concerned in the first instance with terrorism. There is broad agreement that the United States is engaged in what is called sometimes the "long war" against terrorism threats. It should not surprise that a significant part of the "long war" originates in radical Islam, which sees the United States as the Great Satan. Attacks on Americans, and American allies, is considered a religious duty. Western values are off the table. Attacks on churches, synagogues, airlines, communities, public places, is part of the long war. And the long war is on the verge of getting far worse, not better. By setting a standard for viciousness and ferocity, the long war is being taken up outside Islam by other radicals and anarchists, right and left. Fascism is again starting to spread in Europe, and anarchism is rising again in America. Trying to get a handle on these threats and deal with the broadening threat is a critical duty of government. The Patriot Act sets the framework for this.

What we don't know is whether the Patriot Act is being used fairly and honorably. As it is set up today, there is no satisfactory way to prevent abuses, and it is fairly likely there have been more than some. If you can go looking for "foreign agents" and "spies" you have a free hand to use these means for intimidating people and for ruining reputations and careers. There have been enough examples in recent years to make us more than wonder how often this occurs.

So if it is agreed we need a Patriot Act, we should also put in place some independent safeguards. Without them, there is a great risk that the system will run a muck, out of control, sucking up information that will wind up being used nefariously. This can't be 100 percent prevented, but Congress and the administration need to figure out a way to put serious controls in place to stop abuse in its tracks and punish those who do that.

The alternative could be public revulsion so great that the Patriot Act and the agencies it feeds will be changed significantly and our security the worse off.