Friday, January 24, 2014

Private storage of secrets is a bad idea

    It’s not uncommon to follow up on a bad idea by deciding to replace it with a worse one. That is the route President Obama took last week in proposing to park data collected on the activities of private citizens with a private contractor.
    Thanks to revelations made by Edward Snowden, we know now that the National Security Agency has been collecting data from American citizens, reaching into homes and businesses across the nation to amass raw data about the calls of ordinary Americans. This invasion of private communications has been done in the name of national security, the justification always given for secret intelligence.
    It would be both foolish and dangerous to forget the attack on the Pentagon, the Twin Towers, or last year’s bombing at the Boston Marathon. There is no question that there are people who reside in the country, even citizens, who are more than willing to cause the rest of us harm. Find-ing those people is a noble end. Allowing the government a nearly unlimited right to spy on its citizens and compile data seems a dangerous means to that end.
    Assume for the sake of argument, as President Obama seems to, that collecting citizens’ private information is justified. Somehow, he believes that paying for a private company to house that informa-tion is preferable to having a federal agency retain ownership. H.L. Menken tells us, “For every problem, there is a solution that is simple, clear and wrong.”  
    The idea of wresting control of the security documents from the NSA and placing them in the hands of private contractors would be laughable except for the fact that those in the national security apparatus are actually seriously proposing it.
    No matter what you think about Edward Snowden’s actions, we know he worked not for the government, but for a private company. His security clearance was issued through a private contractor.
    This solution seems to stem from the often mistaken idea that private contrac-tors are always more efficient than government bureaucrats. It completely ignores questions about how to be sure a contractor would not invade the data for its own purposes, would have the exper-tise needed over time to do the job, or if it could resist a government demand to access the data anyway.
    If nothing else, Snowden should be a resounding refutation of the whole idea.
    The foolish theory that choosing to take secret information out of the hands of government and put it under the care of pri-vate companies will strengthen the nation and the citizenry is a theory whose time, we hope, will never come.

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