NSA: Fear The Future

The New York Times has published a letter from Glenn S. Gerstell, general counsel at the National Security Agency. In it, he claims a global "digital revolution threatens to upend our entire national security infrastructure". Taken at face value, Mr. Gerstell's argument is an appeal to strengthen U.S. cybersecurity defenses. We understand the letter for what it really is: formal endorsement of a return to the crypto wars, calling for a quantum surge in domestic surveillance and backdoored encryption.

Setting The Stage

The date of publication is significant: September 10, 2019. Mr. Gerstell's letter opens with references to "intercontinental ballistic missiles" and language better suited to a patriotic action thriller, "The officer is authorized to notify the president any time of the day or night of a critical threat."

The short period of time our nation has to prepare for the effects of this revolution is already upon us, and it could not come at a more perilous and complicated time for the National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the other components of the intelligence community.

That revolution will sweep through all aspects of our society so powerfully that our only chance of effectively grappling with its consequences will lie in taking bold steps in the relatively near term.

This language (lifted from Olympus Has Fallen) is a deliberate tactic; it establishes a false sense of urgency while appealing to the fear felt by Americans after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Mr. Gerstell is setting the stage for his audience to cling to our national security apparatus in the face of perceived threats.

Note: We believe the letter originated from Anne Neuberger at the newly launched NSA Cybersecurity Directorate and was likely edited and reviewed by any number of officials at the NSA prior to publication under Mr. Gerstell's name.

A Quantum Surge

There are no less than 30 references to data sharing (which may include backdoor encryption, backdoor access, and surveillance) in Mr. Gerstell's letter. Examples are quoted below:

As the owners of physical infrastructure learned following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when our everyday lives rely on the security of assets and services held in the private sector, commercial owners will be expected to take steps to protect society.

National security agencies will need to defuse that frustration and find an effective path for collaboration with the private sector to mitigate cyberthreats.

The second imperative is we must adapt to the unavoidable conclusion that the fundamental relationship between government and the private sector will be greatly altered.

But it is equally true that to keep our society safe, those charged with that mission will need some access to that data.

Make no mistake, this letter is a thinly-veiled threat to every major corporation around the globe: provide the U.S. government with access to all of your data or else, "there is another path, and it is the one taken by authoritarian regimes around the world".

Agent Muska, NSA. Image Credit: Castle In The Sky (1986)

These talking points are not exclusive to the left or the right, as reflected in recent statements by U.S. Attorney General William Barr, Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, FBI Director Christopher Wray, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Cyrus Vance (D-NY), Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), and others all endorsing the use of surveillance systems in consumer-level devices and software.


Mr. Gerstell peppers his letter with references to privacy, "wrestling with the challenges of the Fourth Amendment" in "this area of data privacy between the government and the private sector", tiptoeing around the truth: the mission of the National Security Agency is not, and will never be, to preserve citizen privacy.

The National Security Agency leads the U.S. Government in cryptology that encompasses both signals intelligence and information assurance products and services, and enables computer network operations in order to gain a decision [sic] advantage for the Nation and our allies under all circumstances.

That uncompromising mission is accurately reflected in Mr. Gerstell's insistence that his proposal is the only solution standing between "our continued position as the leading global power or [reducing] us to a clearly subordinate role".

The functioning of our capitalist society is built on the control of our planet's finite resources, including fossil fuels, raw nuclear material, and rare earth elements. Global superpowers wage war over control of these resources (see: U.S. in Iraq, Russian in Ukraine). Rape, torture, assassination, and economic warfare are the de facto legacy of these campaigns.

To that end, the NSA is concerned with the technological superiority of our military to maintain the status quo: power for wealthy individuals and resources for the true heads of our capitalist state, corporate monopolies. One commenter on the letter wrote,

They'll sap potential for positive disruption, out of paranoia, and ironically ensure the unsteerable inertia of existing institutions takes us all off a cliff.

The rights of citizens stand in direct conflict with the directives of our national security apparatus, and if you believe Mr. Gerstell's claims regarding data privacy, Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald would like to have a word with you.

Published September 11, 2019 by Ethan F Grant