Watching the Watchers

Sara Peters, Editor in Chief | 7/26/2013 | 71 comments

Sara Peters
I was positively alarmed today when I read a headline in The New York Times: "U.S. Tells Russia It Won't Torture or Kill Snowden." I thought that this went without saying. However, if Eric Snowden or any other citizen who has chosen to watch the watchers legitimately fears that his own country will torture him, perhaps my assumptions are naive.

Who's watching the watchers these days? And who's watching the guy who's watching the watchers? Since Snowden leaked the information about the National Security Agency's controversial electronic surveillance activities, both the intelligence agencies and the US government as a whole have faced closer public scrutiny. The Supreme Court in particular is supposed to determine whether the government's actions are unconstitutional. However, further investigation insinuates that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is overstepping its bounds, too -- in effect, writing legislation instead of solely determining whether a law is unconstitutional. Can we trust the watchers of the watchers? Who will properly surveil government surveillance?

Of course, this can get out of hand. It reminds me of this passage from the Dr. Seuss book Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?:

Oh the jobs people work at!
Out west, near Hawtch-Hawtch,
there's a Hawtch-Hawtcher Bee-Watcher,
His job is to watch…
Is to keep both his eyes on the lazy town bee.
A bee that is watched will work harder, you see.
Well… he watched and he watched.
But, in spite of his watch,
that bee didn't work any harder. Not mawtch.
So then somebody said,
"Our old bee-watching man
just isn't bee-watching as hard as he can.
He ought to be watched by another Hawtch-Hawtcher!
The thing that we need
is a Bee-Watcher-Watcher!"

The Bee-Watcher-Watchers.
The Bee-Watcher-Watchers.

The Bee-Watcher-Watcher watched the Bee-Watcher.
He didn't watch well. So another Hawtch-Hawtcher
had to come in as a Watch-Watcher-Watcher!
And today all the Hawtchers who live in Hawtch-Hawtch
are watching on Watch-Watcher-Watchering-Watch,
Watch-Watching the Watcher who's watching that bee.
You're not a Hawtch-Watcher. You're lucky, you see!

It doesn't seem like the Hawtch-Hawtch job market is in very good shape. Yet, all joking aside, perhaps this is a job for every single citizen. Maybe each of us needs to be a watch-watcher-watcher. Maybe we all have this civic duty to surveil government surveillance.

If that's the case, IT professionals may have a bigger duty than most. You understand the technology. You have access to sensitive data. You will be asked to deliver that data to the men in black who ask for it.

At what point would you just choose to say no? At what point would you decide that defying the government's demands is worth running the risk of losing your job or even being charged with crimes against your country?

If you're not ready to answer that question, then perhaps you shouldn't work for a telecommunications company. They are the first ones to be asked to violate their customers' trust and rights. Even if you don't work for a telecom, you CIOs and IT professionals should ponder this question. One day, the NSA might come knocking on your door.

Let's take it a step further. There are organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation that serve as government watchdogs. Should IT security professionals be watchdogs, as well? Would you want that job, or would you be worried that you'd cross the line from watchdog to traitor? What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.

View Comments: Newest First | Oldest First | Threaded View
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The_Phil   Watching the Watchers   8/20/2013 12:16:52 AM
Re: Can this really be the case..?
Unfortunately in the US, people take the democratic process for granted. The fact that we do, in essence, have control of our political environment. In a lot of cases, people don't even vote because they see no value in it. In other countries, people are willing to die to have the chance to have their voices heard. It's sad.
The_Phil   Watching the Watchers   8/20/2013 12:14:31 AM
Re: Can this really be the case..?
From what I've heard, they handle their immigration well compared to alot of other places.
Susan Nunziata   Watching the Watchers   8/2/2013 2:20:26 PM
Re: The media's job
@Hayder: You're right, and in most cases the media have broken the social contract they had with the citizens of our democracy in the U.S. by failing to do just that: Validating their sources.

Once upon a time, newspapers employed teams of fact-checkers and resarchers and copyeditors and proofreaders, as well as strong editors, whose job it was to verify the credibility of sources and information.

These measures enabled us to have some measure of trust that what was being reported had been properly vetted.

Cost-cutting and the rush to compete in a 24X7 news cycle has eroded those checks and balances in the media. Without the restoration of these, the problems will continue.
Susan Nunziata   Watching the Watchers   8/2/2013 2:17:47 PM
Re: The media's job
@Nomi: It's true, there are no easy answers, and the trail of wrongs committed by governments against their own citizens is quite lengthy.

Where does one draw the line between our right to not be subjected to unreasonable search and seizure (including our personal online and telecommunictions) and the need for nations to protect their security?

For example, has air travel really become safer because I keep my liquids in a baggie, take off most of my clothes and shoes, subject myself to harmful radiation, give the TSA agents a good look at where I need liposuction, and may still have to endure a physical patdown? Or is it just good theater?

No easy answers in any of this. It's really the same conundrum as faced in enterprise IT security: It's hard to place a measure of value on the actions you take and the investments you make to prevent something bad from happening...
Hayder   Watching the Watchers   8/2/2013 5:52:20 AM
Re: The media's job
Susan I have one question that if indeopendent media are not been asked to mverify their source of information how can we term it as correct. We need to take a longer route to verify its credibility and in most cases it becomes war lost before it actually started.
Nomi   Watching the Watchers   8/2/2013 5:47:39 AM
Re: The media's job
Susan I agree and feels that ints never too late to correct oneselve. I think snowden has done something good by highlighting the secret surveillance programme and informing the people about their lost privacy. I think those watcjing the watchers need to take  stern step and erradicating any future possibility of this kind but it seems a distant reality.
Susan Nunziata   Watching the Watchers   8/1/2013 12:39:53 AM
Re: The media's job
@a.saji: Quite right, there are lots of broken parts of the system. Fixing one piece won't fix everything, though it's as good a place to start as any, I suppose.
a.saji   Watching the Watchers   7/31/2013 10:36:42 PM
Re: The media's job
@Susan: Yes indeed, the contribution should come from all parts of the process itself. That is because the process is being handled by many after its being broken into several pieces.   
Susan Nunziata   Watching the Watchers   7/31/2013 2:05:59 PM
Re: The media's job
@Sherly: Exactly right. The system is broken if the media people aren't doing their jobs, and right now very few of them are IMHO.
Don K   Watching the Watchers   7/31/2013 1:25:41 PM
Re: tough one.
@Sara: Any network which provides news updates should not be excused. News is something which is new and updated. 
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