Media Criticism

Hypocrisy Revealed! U.S. Exploits Vulnerabilities, Gathers Foreign Intelligence

By Joel Brenner
Friday, April 25, 2014, 8:14 AM

We now know the shocking truth. The FBI has success­fully exploited a software vulnerability to obtain access, through recruited hackers, to networks operated by the governments of Brazil, Pakistan, Nige­ria, and Turkey and---hold your breath---Iran and Syria. Even more startling, especially to those despairing of our government agencies’ ability to cooperate with one another, the New York Times (Mark Mazetti) this week disclosed that---get this---“the F.B.I. might have been using hackers to feed information to other Amer­ican intelligence agencies.”

It’s easy to imagine that our enemies should be disappointed that our agencies are cooperating with one another, but who else is upset? Mr. Mazetti found her: Professor Gabriella Coleman of McGill University. “It’s not only hypocritical but troubling if indeed the F.B.I. is loaning its sting operations out to other three-letter agencies,” she said.

Weighing the evidence, Mr. Mazetti shrewdly concludes, “The hacking campaign appears to offer further evidence that the American govern­ment has exploited major flaws in Internet security … for intelli­gence purposes.” Well, of course it does! Information is created, trans­mitted, and stored in electronic networks.  If you want your government to stop terrorist financing, impede the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon, freeze the assets of the Assad clique, and find out what the leaders of foreign nations are intending to do next, it must penetrate their networks. And the easiest (though not the only) way to do it is often through software vulnera­bilities.

The fact that we also want to make everyone’s networks more secure by disclosing most of the vulnerabilities we discover means we have a diffi­cult problem to manage.  The dilemma cannot be wished away.

Taking a cue from Professor Coleman, however, Mr. Mazetti presents our management of this dilemma as rank hypocrisy. Our government, he observes, “may have used hackers to gather intelligence over­seas even as investigators were trying to dismantle hacking groups like Anonymous and send computer activists away for lengthy prison terms.” Note Mr. Mazetti’s use of “activists” (They’re good people, right?) to describe criminals who steal personal information and business secrets.  Note, too, his bland lumping together of Anonymous, a group that punishes speech it dislikes through relentless cyber vigilante attacks, with “activists” and the assumed agents of goodness and light.

The stakes in international relations are high. This is not a parlor game whose only activity is the selection of abstract principles. Citizens and institutions are right to criticize their government for its inevitable fail­ings and abuses, but citizens and institutions that cannot distinguish between domestic criminality and urgently necessary foreign intelligence gathering---who cannot indeed determine what side they are on---have lost their moral and political compass.