The Internet's watchmen applaud privacy

Wikimedia images: Glen Greenwald and Keith Alexander.

Privacy advocate Glenn Greenwald (left) and former NSA chief Keith Alexander.

Telling a packed room full of security experts that the feds should be collecting less data?

It went over pretty well.

Outspoken journalist and privacy advocate Glenn Greenwald squared off against retired Gen. Keith Alexander, formerly a longtime NSA director and first head of the U.S. Cyber Command, at the HP Protect conference Sept. 2 in National Harbor, Md.

The debate was fairly cordial (Alexander said it should be called a “discussion” and an “idea meritocracy” instead of a debate, though Greenwald later tweeted that it “wasn’t easy” to avoid throwing a chair during the conversation) and both men drew applause at various points.

“You have to collect data, all [of it], to know who the bad guys are,” Alexander argued. “If you don’t know who the bad guys are … how do you find them after the fact?”

As Alexander touted the value of bulk data collection, Greenwald warned it could prove counterproductive.

“You may be collecting so much data … that you actually then aren’t able to focus on what you should be focusing on,” Greenwald said. “You can actually collect so much data that you drown yourself in it.” It’s a “false dichotomy,” then, to present security and privacy as opposing values, Greenwald argued.

Another point of major contention: Edward Snowden, whom Alexander essentially called an oath breaker for leaking sensitive federal data.

“His oaths were not to obey superiors in the U.S. government, it was to protect the Constitution,” Greenwald fired back.

Greenwald also hammered federal intelligence agencies for conducting cyberattacks against foreign adversaries that the adversaries can then turn against the U.S., as The Intercept reported had happened with Stuxnet and Iran, and for pushing for backdoors to get around encryption, a notion some lawmakers have panned.

“We’re proliferating the very threats we’re claiming we try to stop,” Greenwald said.

“I agree that we don’t need a backdoor,” Alexander quipped. “Actually what you need is a front door, because the front doors are normally wider.”

That front door, he explained, takes the form of court-ordered processes to access data.

“The question that comes up with ubiquitous encryption is, ‘What happens when you can’t see what terrorists are planning?’” Alexander said. “And I think that’s going to get worse. That’s going to get much worse.”

Failing to hash out a good system now, Alexander posited, would lead to whiplash down the road. “[Americans say] let’s encrypt it all, [authorities] get no access and they can go work other leads, we have a 9/11 and then we snap back and say, ‘OK, what do we do?’” Alexander said, laying out his prediction.

While Alexander drew audible support from the security-minded crowd, it was a John-Galt-on-the-radio moment from Greenwald that drew perhaps the biggest response.

First Greenwald noted the apparent hypocrisy of people like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who proclaimed privacy to be obsolete a year before buying four homes surrounding his own in a bid to retain the same.

“Having a place to go where we can think and explore without judgmental eyes being cast upon us is a critical part of what it means to be a free human being, and I think that if you create an environment where people know that they’re susceptible to being watched at all times, you can really extinguish creativity, the capacity for innovation and human dissent,” Greenwald said. “A watched society is one that breeds conformity and orthodoxy and obedience and submission and I think that’s the reason we create privacy so much as individuals.”

As the moderator began to respond, the room full of 2,000-odd security professionals (roughly 100 of them feds, organizers said) erupted in applause.

About the Author

Zach Noble is a former FCW staff writer.


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