The following is an opinion article written by Edward Snowden, a retired systems administrator.
Last month, America fought its first cyber war and lost before it even started.
North Korea’s hacking of Sony’s computer networks — which the press initially passed off as “just” some data leakage — is now known to have been a much more destructive attack by malicious software, or “malware.” I know something about data leakage from my time as a systems administrator, and I can safely say this North Korean attack is totally off the charts.
President Obama has hinted at possible retaliation, such as sanctions on North Korea, indictments against North Korean hackers, or increased support for South Korea. But these are only half-measures. The only way to fight fire is with fire, and when it comes to a cyber-power like North Korea what we really need is some sort of intelligence agency with massive surveillance and collection capabilities.
Today Facebook, Google, or Uber can mine all of our personal data for information. Shouldn’t the U.S. government have that capability as well, to keep us safe from enemy hackers? I’m talking total collections on anyone’s e-mail, texts, voice or video chats, even the massive fiber-optic cables that move data around the world. Whether you’re the leader of North Korea, Germany, or Brazil, we should be able to know exactly what you’re up to.
And that doesn’t even begin to touch what we could do with just metadata. Let me put it to you this way: If we had an agency that had all that information at our disposal, North Korea would be lucky to even access some ancient BBS in China, let alone the global web.
Just one agency for national security that could surveil even 75 percent of America’s domestic Internet traffic could easily detect almost all attempts by enemy countries to breach our networks. All it takes is the political will to fight the entrenched Fourth Amendment lobbyists from “Big Privacy” groups on Capitol Hill.
But it won’t be painless. It is too easy today for a hostile country to mask their net activity behind the IP address of what looks like a friendly country or even your average law-abiding citizen. So we need to be able to own any network, server, or router, anywhere on earth. In fact, in this day and age it’s almost a crime that the U.S. doesn’t have the ability to monitor anyone’s email anywhere on the planet knowing only their user name.
Sadly our intelligence agencies are currently limited to collecting information the old fashioned way: driving nails into someone’s hand until they sing. Just for once, instead of hearing about some illegal torture program or illegal assassination program, I’d rather hear about an illegal wiretapping program.
Then I’d know the U.S. government at least had the technical capability to access or attack a hostile network.
And this can’t be optional. We need to force our own tech companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Yahoo to participate in the system.
While the right to privacy in this country is sacrosanct, no policy can ever be truly absolutist. We will occasionally have to sacrifice a little bit of freedom for security. Some may say that security without freedom is tyranny, but I would respond that freedom without security is tyranny as well: the tyranny of anarchy. How else can you describe the government of North Korea muzzling a powerful multinational corporation like Sony? And if they can do that, what chance does the average American taxpayer have?
And really, if someone’s going to be spying on me, I’d rather it was the U.S. government. At least they have outstanding presidential and congressional oversight.
Critics may say this is just furthering the so-called “national security state,” but I would say that only the U.S. government truly has the resources to combat an enemy nation-state’s cyber capabilities. But collecting and understanding what our enemy wants to do is just part of the solution. We also need to be able to respond in kind.
If our enemies can develop malware, we can too. Even a program that could hypothetically just crash nuclear centrifuges would certainly make North Korea shudder.
Collect it all, process it all, exploit it all, partner it all, sniff it all, know it all: that is the road to cyber victory. When we’re through with them they will have 1’s and 0’s scrolling across their eyeballs.
Edward Snowden, a former systems administrator and contractor for the U.S. government, currently lives in Russia.
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