The NSA had an intense surveillance program for the last 4 years. There seems to have been just one glitch – they forgot to include their own. Edward Snowden, a tech specialist contracting for the NSA leaked the details of a highly classified surveillance program called PRISM to the Guardian and Washington Post last week.

The leak raises 2 key issues and should force a re-think and retrospection:

–        Safety and security around classified programs

–        Legislative control and oversight around individual privacy


Safety and security around classified programs:

Thankfully, the information leak by Edward Snowden was less related to national security and more towards individual privacy. But what if one of the operatives on Operation Neptune Spear – the operation to kill Osama Bin Laden, felt it was wrong and leaked it to the media before it was executed? How does the CIA or NSA ensure this does not happen?

In the case of Edward Snowden, an interesting issue that stands out is that a contractor had access to classified information. Contractors are temporary employees and are usually assigned to maintenance type work or short term projects. They complete their short assignment and move onto another assignment or another organization. So how did Edward Snowden get hired as a systems administrator? That alone gave him an extremely broad access to classified and non-classified data. That would be a huge security loophole. And he could’ve leaked the Bin Laden raid as well if he didn’t agree with it.

So, it maybe time to have an independent agency audit the processes followed by our intelligence agencies towards hiring and assignment to classified projects?

Legislative control and oversight around individual privacy:

Now 4 administrations have been accused of wiretapping individuals. So it is high time we go past the idealistic baloney and accept ground reality. Protection of its citizens is the highest priority of the government. In the past, especially during the cold war, this was reflected in high defense expenditures. After 9/11, terrorism has become the #1 threat to the United States and the recent Boston Marathon bombings prove that the originators can be right amongst us. In fact, weren’t we able to narrow down upon the suspects through public surveillance systems including cellphone images from bystanders? Then why are we upset when the government has taken it to the next level?

The key here is prevention of misuse of the data. As Snowden points out, there is so much data that at some point in time (watch: Edward Snowden speaks) it could be misused to implicate innocent individuals.

So how do we prevent this? The Legislators have to get together and come up with laws around governance of this data. Some of the areas they have to think about should include:

–        Purging of data: The data related to wiretaps and internet access should have a finite life and once the intelligence agencies have analyzed it, it has to be purged. The data cannot be built up with time – that would be a complete violation of individual privacy

–        Legal recourse in case of misuse: What if a rogue intelligence analyst stalks a private citizen? What if a rogue analyst sells data to commercial organizations to help understand consumer buying patterns – the list can go on. There needs to be a legal recourse against the intelligence organizations for this kind of an infringement upon individual privacy.

–        Vetting of the data mining process: The intelligence agencies have to clearly define the process of data analysis of such kind of data. Who needs to have access to the data and for how long? Snowden was a contractor but he has systems administration responsibilities – that itself is a huge loophole in the process. As indicated under safety of classified programs above, the hiring and assignment process needs to be vetted by an independent group.

Once we have a legal framework around this kind of surveillance, the concerns of the average citizen should reduce drastically. But the administration, especially the President has to take accountability for continuing with this program after using this as a key election plank. Interestingly, this incident seems to draw a parallel with two of George Orwell’s bestselling novels – “1984” and “Animal Farm”. While “1984” is the story about government surveillance headed by Big Brother, “Animal Farm” is the story of an idealistic leadership getting corrupted by power. Both novels were written before 1950 and seeing the parallel in the 21st century – my respect for George Orwell suddenly quadrupled!