Friday, November 1, 2013

Level 3 Communications, the NSA, and the end of the Physical-Digital Divide. What needs to be done?

The Level 3 Communications (NYSE: LVLT) blog recently published an article entitled "Say Goodbye to the Physical-Digital Divide." It's a light-hearted, upbeat corporate feel-good piece about how television shows are become Twitter-enabled. It's also a very disturbing piece when you realize that Level 3 is one of the Tier 1 backbone providers who has assisted the NSA in its collection efforts:
This is an exciting time!  Not only for Joe Consumer, who is being further enabled (and actively encouraged) to merge his offline and online behavior, blurring the lines of the physical-digital divide, but also for major content providers – many of whom we’re fortunate enough to call customers.  This is the new model of content consumption.  Always-on and always-available. Cross-media and cross-platform. 
Think about that from the standpoint of legal intercepts and data collection, and you'll see my point. We used to be vulnerable based upon what we read at the library, what we threw away in our trash, and what we wrote to our friends. Today, that has expanded exponentially and we've lost control of exactly how and where we are vulnerable to exposure.

Now consider that Level 3 is Google's upstream provider. Is that how the NSA was able to intercept the data traveling between Google's data centers? To be clear, Level 3 isn't doing anything illegal, nor is the NSA for that matter. And that's precisely the problem that needs addressing.

In less than 10 years, the physical - digital divide has disintegrated. In less time than it takes a human being to achieve mastery over a skill, technology has exponentially expanded how we interact with each other and, conversely, how we can harm each other.

Intelligence and law enforcement agencies, whose mission is to identify and intercept those who wish to cause us harm, have leveraged legal regimes like the Patriot Act, EO 12333, etc. to gain a foothold within the networks that are the primary supports (i.e., backbone) for our digital environment. The difference between what those out-dated laws still allow and what technology has made possible in the way of data collection and analysis is where our focus needs to be. In other words, the laws must be amended to catch up with how exposed we are in today's digital and physical world so that a better privacy:security balance can be restored.

Wasting time bashing the NSA and other intelligence services does more harm than good because it fails to address the real problem (out-dated authorities that need revising) in favor of lashing out at an easy and unpopular target - the NSA and its fellow agencies who diligently attempt to accomplish the very difficult tasks that we expect from them.

In an effort to help move this debate forward and clarify where reforms are needed, I've set aside two hours for a panel discussion at Suits and Spooks DC on how our parallel needs for security and privacy can be met through reform of the current laws authorizing data collection by the IC. It's not an easy panel to fill, so let me know if you have any suggestions for experts to participate on it. Dr. Catherine Lotrionte of Georgetown University will be the moderator. 

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