Until 12 years ago, Americans didn't know airliners could be used as "weapons of mass destruction." Our solution those first few days was simple: ban airliners. Planes stayed on the ground, everyone took precautions and eventually flight resumed.
Today air travel still isn't 100 percent secure, but we accept the risks because air travel also brings benefits. If President George W. Bush had said, "Ground them all, permanently," it would mean the terrorists won. Their actions would have reduced our freedom and drastically changed our economy.
We now know that General Keith Alexander, who Bush chose to head the National Security Agency (NSA), had a different philosophy. "Collect it all," he reportedly told his intelligence colleagues. Documents collected by Edward Snowden show how enthusiastically they obeyed.
A "collect it all" strategy is far more useful when you can actually read it all. Last week, while Syria stole the headlines, we learned NSA had worked with leading technology companies to gain "back door" access to almost every online security protocol.
If you think the little padlock symbol next to a web address means you can expect privacy, you are wrong. NSA has the key. They may not have used it yet, but very little stands in their way.
The Obama administration calls this necessary to protect us from future terror attacks. Certainly, no one wants another 9/11. The question is whether the benefits outweigh the costs.
After 9/11, we all agreed airline travel should continue with modifications. Keith Alexander decided allowing privacy was just too risky. To protect the nation, he had to destroy online security.
A public debate about it would have been nice. Since we didn't have one, here are some of the economic consequences Keith Alexander decided you should bear.
First, the keys he made could easily fall into the wrong hands. This is self-evident from the facts. The NSA gave Edward Snowden its virtual keys to the kingdom and then let him fly off to China and finally Russia.
All this occurred under General Alexander, the security genius who only post-Snowden realized a two-man rule was a good idea. I conclude with high confidence that the NSA cannot keep a secret.
Among those secrets, we now know, is the ability to break into sensitive networks and potentially destroy power grids, financial markets and air traffic control. Another Snowden could give us Y2K on steroids.
Second, now that we know NSA can hack anything it wishes, but can't protect its own data, your business competitor is one bribe away from reading your email. Imagine what a billionaire hedge fund manager could do. A small contribution to an NSA contractor's offshore retirement fund would quickly pay for itself.
The same technology that makes business so much more efficient also renders it that much less private. Smart executives have always preferred meeting in person. Expect to see more such meetings — and expect big decisions to take much longer.
Third, top technology companies helped the NSA gain these abilities. Whether they did it voluntarily or under duress, they knew about it. When technology providers, phone companies, banks, brokers and Obamacare insurers say your data is "secure," they are wrong. What they say is not true, they know it is not true, but they say it anyway.
This is not the way to gain customer confidence, nor will it help the U.S. economy or stock market. The primary result is to give the entire world a great reason not to trust U.S. technology. Our own government is working hard — to make sure millions of unemployed Americans stay that way.
These are just a few of the burdens Keith "Collect It All" Alexander imposed in the name of national defense. Maybe the benefits are worth the costs. We will never know — because we never had a choice.
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