Mea Culpa: Shane Harris

By Benjamin Wittes
Wednesday, September 7, 2011, 12:12 PM

Shane Harris, senior writer for Washington magazine and author of the The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance Statewrites in with the following in connection with Lawfare's 9/11 10th Anniversary Project:  

On September 11, 2001, I was a technology beat reporter covering the federal government, and I quickly became enamored--as did many of the people I was writing about--of the power of information technology to solve big national security problems. Most intriguing to me was a program at the Defense Department's research and development agency called Total Information Awareness. It was an unsettling name, to be sure, but TIA promised to solve two huge problems with one powerful idea. It would use data collection and analysis software to try and spot the signs of the next attack, but it would also use computer engineering to shield the information of innocent Americans' caught up in a digital dragnet. In essence, TIA would use its "watching" eye to watch the watchers.

Since this noble idea came from of the government agency that had helped to invent the Internet, I believed it could be the beginning a new era of technological enlightenment. I thought that U.S. intelligence leaders would embrace the power of technology to keep us safer not just from terrorists, but from those that would abuse their official authorities. 

I was wrong. It took a few more years and a number of helpful tips from concerned whistleblowers, but in 2006, I discovered that the government had quietly abandoned the TIA privacy research, at the same time that it turned the program over to the National Security Agency. The NSA, of course, had been engaged in a probably illegal campaign of warrantless surveillance of American's electronic communications.

Fellow journalists, likewise aided by concerned sources inside and outside the government, have repeatedly shown that when given the chance to build privacy protection and oversight directly into surveillance systems, as a part of the machine, the government declines. 

Why? The official, technical explanations are that privacy protection would cost too much, slow down the analysis process, and prove impractical in a real-time environment. I'll leave it for computer engineers to debate whether that's true--I think it's not--but these reasons obscure a more fundamental explanation, and it points to another fact that I missed in my early days covering the response to 9/11.

The meaning of privacy has changed. In my mind, I had linked keeping one's electronic information to one's self with the long-standing prerogative of Americans to remain anonymous, to say the world, "Mind your own business," or, to put it in the digital context, to go off the grid. I was naive to assume that government officials had any sympathy for this position, much less that they thought it was still possible in our current age.

Donald Kerr, who was once the second highest official in the intelligence community, summed this up better than anyone I've seen, in a speech in October 2007. "Too often, privacy has been equated with anonymity; and it's an idea that is deeply rooted in American culture....But in our interconnected and wireless world, anonymity--or the appearance of anonymity--is a thing of the past."

Kerr added, "Anyone that's typed their name on Google understands that," and he went on to say that younger generations "have a very different idea of what is essential privacy, what they would wish to protect about their lives and affairs. And so, it's not for us to inflict one size fits all."

I'd been disabused of my earlier notions by this time. But Kerr's remarks still stand out as the most frank public assessment of what I had missed: The meaning of privacy has changed and anonymity no longer exists. America's electronic spies figured that out before I did.