Why Did the NSA Go (Virtually) MIA?

Perhaps befitting the agency’s persistent stealth, the entrance foyer does not have the grandeur of, say, the CIA’s iconic marble lobby. When you go to Langley, you feel you’re on a movie set. This was more like going through security for jury duty. I met my escort, signed in, and got badged. And, yes, they checked my recorder’s serial number.

Once inside, however, the scene became more cinematic. The passageways have a bustling, Pentagon-ish feel. Many people, in fact, are in uniform, a reminder that the NSA is, after all, part of the Defense Department. All of its directors have been high-ranking officers like admirals or generals. Even the civilian employees communicate with the crisp, respectful efficiency of the armed forces: It’s all direct sentences, sir and ma’am, acronyms and numbers. That military mentality is built into the mindset there—NSA people view themselves, as soldiers do, as serving, protecting the nation, doing a job that must be done and stoically shrugging off its thanklessness. One always suspects that in NSA interactions with outsiders, an unspoken phrase hovers over the conversation, that of Jack Nicholson’s embittered warrior in A Few Good Men: You can’t handle the truth.

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Ask Me One Thing

Chris writes, “Why don’t we license social media sites and their developers? Think about it. We license doctors, lawyers, even plumbers. Professional Engineers (that is Engineers with a capital E) undergo rigorous training before they are allowed to practice, but any code-slinging jockey (no degree required) that can come up with the cash is allowed unfettered access to public resources, with no regard for the consequences.”

Thanks for the question, Chris. Can I interpret this as two questions? The first is whether we should licence social media apps because of the potentially harmful content from users that they may circulate—or even recklessly promote. I would suspect that demanding a license for that is a First Amendment issue, and in any case, I’m not comfortable with licensing speech like that. The second is whether software should be treated with the “capital-E” status you write about, meaning that only licensed professionals should be allowed to release apps. I’m not a fan of that either, again for speech reasons. Plus, there’s no assurance that software is more reliable because the creator is certified. Would Bill Gates have been licensed to write his first BASIC? I doubt it. Effectively, Apple and Google have standards for what they distribute in their app stores. Anyone using mission-critical software should go to further lengths to vet it carefully. For other stuff, a Google search might tell you whether an app is reliable. Look at how quickly people found out Cyberpunk 2077 was buggy!