The National Security Agency (NSA) intends to eliminate the majority of its system administrators as a way to reduce the number of humans who could leak sensitive data, Edward Snowden-style.
NSA director Keith Alexander told a conference in New York City that headcount among its system administrators would be severely curtailed in the future. “What we’re in the process of doing—not fast enough—is reducing our system administrators by about 90 percent,” he said, according to Reuters. The newswire added that roughly 1,000 such employees maintain the agency’s networks and equipment.
The NSA is dismissing all those people in the name of secrecy. “What we’ve done,” Alexander added, “is we’ve put people in the loop of transferring data, securing networks and doing things that machines are probably better at doing.” An automated system operated by a minimum of human beings, on the other hand, will make the NSA’s digital assets more defensible.
The NSA claims this automation initiative began before Edward Snowden leaked top-secret information about the agency’s surveillance programs to The Guardian, but that it accelerated the timetable following that fracas.
Alexander had already described several policy changes, including a buddy plan that would require at least two people be present before anyone could access sensitive or secured data, as ways to also prevent leakers.
Alexander’s conference comments were an attempt to defend not only the NSA’s surveillance programs, but also its adherence to laws and government policies limiting the ability of federal agencies to eavesdrop on U.S. citizens. “No one has willfully or knowingly disobeyed the law or tried to invade your civil liberties or privacies,” Alexander said. “There were no mistakes like that at all.”
Taking humans out of the loop can leave automated systems vulnerable to being hacked from the outside or illegally compromised by insiders, but reduces the number of potential points of failure by reducing the number of people who might be tempted to break the rules, FBI director Robert Mueller said at the same conference, according to Ars Technica’s Sean Gallagher.
“We must remember that behind every intrusion is a person responsible for that intrusion,” Gallagher quoted Mueller as saying. “Our ultimate goal must be to identify and deter the persons behind these keyboards.”
On August 9, President Obama suggested changes to the Patriot Act and other legislation that would curb potential abuse of the federal government’s surveillance apparatus. “I look forward to working with Congress to meet those objectives,” he told a gathering of reporters. He also advocated transparency, directing the intelligence community to make its programs as transparent as possible—including the NSA putting an officer in place to monitor privacy and civil liberties concerns.
“We show a restraint that many governments around the world don’t even think to do,” he said.