Feel this blow as a coup de grâce: The NSA not only, we now know, hoards data on our every communication, but, we now learn, wants to have broader surveillance dragnets and deeper spycraft capabilities in place to defend that other great villain of the past decade -- Wall Street. The nexus of power and control linking Washington, Silicon Valley and Wall Street was made almost cinematically complete in comments from NSA Chief Keith Alexander to lawmakers this week.
Earlier this year, following revelations that the NSA was spying on communications to Brazilian oil giant Petrobras, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper released a statement, noting:
It is not a secret that the Intelligence Community collects information about economic and financial matters, and terrorist financing. We collect this information for many important reasons: for one, it could provide the United States and our allies early warning of international financial crises which could negatively impact the global economy. It also could provide insight into other countries’ economic policy or behavior which could affect global markets.
Michael Degerald wrote in Salon at the time that Clapper's reference here to avoiding financial crises at best rang hollow, at worst smacked of U.S. exceptionalist hypocrisy. "To go down the logical path laid by Clapper’s own claims as a hypothetical exercise," wrote Degerald, "why doesn’t the NSA spy on Wall Street? This could get them all the evidence they could need to successfully prosecute those responsible, and truly move toward stabilizing the economy. If any part of American society or business had shown itself to be corrupt to the core, and thus in need of surveillance, it’s Wall Street."
According to reports from Foreign Policy this week, and NSA chief Keith Alexander's public remarks on Tuesday, the NSA does spy on Wall Street -- but not, of course, to watch for malfeasance; rather, to protect and defend it. Alexander told lawmakers that he wanted his spy agency to have the ability to prevent cyberattacks against U.S. banking institutions. In no uncertain terms, Alexander was asking for expanded legal authority to further expand the NSA's surveillance programs.
Drawing an analogy to how the military detects an incoming missile with radar and other sensors, Alexander imagined the NSA being able to spot "a cyberpacket that's about to destroy Wall Street." In an ideal world, he said, the agency would be getting real-time information from the banks themselves, as well as from the NSA's traditional channels of intelligence, and have the power to take action before a cyberattack caused major damage.
The analogy was a stretch.
For starters, what's a "cyberpacket"? Presumably Alexander meant a sophisticated computer worm or virus designed to disrupt a computer or destroy the data inside it. (Maybe like the one his agency reportedly helped design to destroy centrifuges in an Iranian nuclear facility.) But the idea that a single, tiny packet could wipe out Wall Street is laughable. That's like saying a paintball can take out a tank.
Could a hacker really take out Wall Street in one fell cyberswoop? Current and former intelligence officials have warned that a determined adversary could manipulate or erase electronic data in the computers of banks, clearinghouses, or stock exchanges, undermining confidence in the banking system and triggering a nationwide economic panic. The damage might be severe, but presumably temporary.
Alexander seemed to suggest it would be permanent or long-lasting. The general is one of the most technologically knowledgeable officials in the intelligence community. So should we conclude that Wall Street really is at risk of a catastrophic cyberattack? Or that Alexander is engaging in a little old-fashioned fear-mongering to drum up support for his policies?