The NSA Wants America’s Most Powerful Corporations to Be Dependent on It

Conor Friedersdorf
The Atlantic
July 17, 2013


The NSA PhoneThe Washington Post profile of NSA director General Keith B. Alexander concludes with an account of a private meeting that he conducted a few years ago with financial industry officials. Talk turned to computer malware aimed at stealing customer data.

“His proposed solution: Private companies should give the government access to their networks so it could screen out the harmful software,” the newspaper reports. “The NSA chief was offering to serve as an all-knowing virus-protection service, but at the cost, industry officials felt, of an unprecedented intrusion into the financial institutions’ databases.” They were “stunned” the story goes on, “immediately grasping the privacy implications of what Alexander was politely but urgently suggesting.” Said one participant, “Folks in the room looked at each other like, ‘Wow. That’s kind of wild.’ ”

Alexander’s proposal is just the latest example we have of the NSA aggressively reaching out to America’s biggest, most powerful corporate actors in ways that ostensibly offer an upside of added protection against attack, but at a terrible cost: the extreme concentration of power in the United States. The federal government, Wall Street, Silicon Valley — all are centers of power. In fact, entities within each sphere are powerful enough, on their own, to warrant constant vigilance. The NSA has constant access to troves of private communications. So does Google. I wouldn’t bet that, 10 years from now, Google is going to launch a sophisticated blackmail campaign against America’s ruling class. But if they wanted to, they’d have the data!

What ultimately restrains powerful entities is their separateness.

If Google tried to blackmail people, the federal government could arrest, prosecute, and jail the responsible parties. If national-security officials tried to mistreat Google, its management could marshal a substantial fortune, high-powered lawyers, and a far-reaching public platform to fight back. The same goes for Wall Street, Walmart, and the city of Walla Walla, Washington: America has countless repositories of power, some big, some small. And while that doesn’t always prevent abuses, even serious ones, it has prevented us from becoming a society where anyone, whether a military dictator or the owner of a company store, has free rein to rule over regular people.

The diffuseness of power in America has long been a strength. But we’re rapidly undermining it. I don’t just mean that we’re increasingly federalizing everything, and concentrating power in the executive branch, though we’ve done both of those things. What I mean is that, during the last two presidencies, a series of events, including the 9/11 attacks and the global financial crisis, have led to increasingly, uncomfortably close ties between Big Finance, Big Telecom, Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C. And apparently, Alexander is pushing for even closer ties, in the form of government eyes constantly inside of America’s financial infrastructure.

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