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Friday, June 14, 2013

NSA who is that?

I've been following the NSA scandals and related matters since I was a teenager and found out that there was this super secret organization down the road from my house which pretended it didn't exist and hired Marines to guard it. I heard all sorts of stories and knew people whose Daddies couldn't talk about what they did for a living and worked there. One day I took a few tests to see if I could work there. Never did get a job there. I'm kinda glad now. The place was known as the National Security Agency (NSA). One day a couple of marines from NSA were engaging in recreation at the Savage Maryland Swimming hole on the Little Patuxent (we always called it the Savage river, sort of a joke), and some local toughs roughed them up. I was at work in the Savage IGA and along came a bunch of military vehicles and folks looking for those toughs. I believe an entire platoon of Marines moved through our town that day and they found the two guys I heard and roughed them up. Shortly after that the Marines were replaced with Hired Guards. Never got that job either. I finished College and was in Buddhism and an organization that called itself "NSA" but was really a branch of a Japanese "New religion." NSA receded to the back of my mind except as a potential employer. Never did get a job there. They require really scary polygraph tests and since I only know I was born in Corona because it says so on my birth certificate, just the thought of all those wires scares me. It turns out the way around all that is to join the military, get a good job assignment, and they then take care of all that stuff. Civilian tracks are much harder. For me getting into my career was a catch 22, got degree, but they wanted "experience" or a "clearance", how do I get that? In the late 70's and early 80's even the military wasn't hiring for good jobs. I should have joined anway. I took my bachelor's degree and applied it to humping furniture. Got hired by a moving and storage company.

Then along comes the computer revolution, and my company got some real good contracts delivering stuff somewhere. I believe it was NSA, State Department, and some other places I was sure that if I talked about somebody might off me. I worked for that place a long time, mostly shipping computers all over the world. A lot of those went to places like NSA and I learned a lot of scuttlebut about the place. They built two new office buildings. These had an inner shell and an outer shell, and I believe the purpose was for electronic shielding. I learned NSA was not supposed to spy on Americans, but could collect useful information from the key presses of a manual type-writer and that most encrypted messages and other measures were a waste of time. I'm sure some of the information was disinformation, but folks working for NSA proudly took credit for the USA defeating communism even before the Berlin Wall Fell. NSA collated the information from other agencies, I heard, and that information included the ability to read license plates from space. The person who told me that later denied he said it. Maybe it was hype. But that is how NSA was to folks who lived in it's neighborhood. Super Secret, staffed with paranoid people who didn't want you even walking near, and who patrolled the grounds with arms in armored vehicles -- and that was before the Berlin Wall Fell.

1980's

One day in the 80's, we had some of our machines start disappearing. Funny thing is this was after we upped the security with razor wire and a guard tower. I used to consider how easy it would be to turn our giant warehouse into a prison. Anyway, I came into work one morning and my immediate boss, a guy named Ray, asked me if I'd seen or moved these particular boxes with computers in them. I hadn't of course, but I tried to help him find the missing equipment. And over the next few months more machines started disappearing. We had some visitors from our headquarters in Burlington Alabama. The only thing that impressed me about them was that they were very much Southern boys. A couple of them were very smart, but they fairly reeked of ambition. They were there to "help" with the missing machines. They first visited just before they started disappearing. After a short time, one day Ray was ordered to take all the machines that were special order and wrap them with police tape. I wasn't sure what the machines were for but I understood they were loaded with specialized financial tracking software. Somebody wanted them. I told my boss he should put some security cameras pointing to the boxes and hide the cameras. He was ordered by the Inventory specialist a guy named "Max" not to. I go home. Next morning two more boxes were gone.

My Manager Roy and his assistant were both cool guys who were dedicated, loyal and worked very hard. Roy would work right alongside you and was like the energizer bunny. He managed multiple locations and was really good at his job. The two of them were out of town when all this was happening, yet for some reason the senior management fired them, and put these inventory specialists in charge of our branch. Shortly after that they got investment money I was told came from either China or the Saudis, and bought out the company. Max became a wealthy guy. But what was funny is that as soon as they fired my rather innocent manager and his assistant, the boxes not only stopped disappearing but I was told by our Security Manager in very serious tones "This Never happened." So I can't prove this story ever occurred, but it was curious that all this was occurring as a family known as the "Inslaws" suicided for suing the government for appropriating their financial software inappropriately. That was the 80's. I pretty much have about 90% confidence that I know who really done it. The man is resting in peace now so it doesn't matter, but I'm pretty sure he was involved in something related to CIA/NSA with that incident. Don't know if those machines were going to NSA or somewhere else, but I suspect the thefts were an inside job, maybe even part of a larger deceptive plot. I only got to go to NSA once for that company, that was on a delivery. But spy spooks frighten me, (dead spooks don't) so I'm glad. Never did get a job there.

1990's

In the 1990's I got to interview for some IT jobs near NSA. I got in with a company that had a huge variety of computer work. I ran their old mainframes, delivered stuff all over the place, and eventually started getting contract assignments. When a contract ended, they'd find me a new one. I finally started getting into IT and they let me test programs and was prepared to become a programmer. Learned all the languages of the time: C, COBOL, Fortran, Java, and some of the old ones; PASCAL, ADA, PL/1, and most usefully I learned SQL. A select statement may have different syntax in MySQL versus Oracle, but the concepts are identical. I was finally doing my career finally. I was trained as a Tester and could write computer programs. A few times I got close to getting one, but never did get a job at NSA.

Did work for a Navy Contract. As a tester I got to work on pay and personnel subjects. Also some security subjects. NSA is the go to source if you want to understand cryptology, encoding and the rules for cyber-security. I learned a lot from the Navy, mostly from NSA or DISA sources. But I didn't have that top secret clearance, and it was a struggle to get the majority of the jobs. NSA was expanding in the 1990's. The Security establishment doesn't care whose president, just so long as they can be left alone to "protect" Americans from "enemies" "foreign and domestic." NSA wasn't supposed to be spying on people in the United States. But we also had that 5 eyes thing. I was told we did intelligence sharing and our friends shared critical information about our people with us. It's easy to get a warrant for watching a genuine spy. And it's easy for a whistleblower or dissident to get labeled as a spy. A lady in my Apartment complex claimed she was arrested and tried by a secret court in Virginia. She didn't tell me what she was arrested for and I figured she was nuts. Secret courts in the USA? What's that? Shouldn't that be all over the news? I worked that company until 2000.

2000's,

In 2000 or so I got a job at BLS. We had a Secret Service Office right over head whose whole job was to make sure that none of us invested in anything or misused our advance knowledge of employment and economic data. I had advance notice I was being spied on, and it didn't bother me. I learned all about Databases, got to do some minor scripting and testing, but mostly maintained several databases and released employment information to the Public on a tight schedule. We were always within a second of release time. Never one second early, and rarely more than a second or two late. By being perfect I made the job look easy. They had hired me in case anything went wrong. As a contractor I'd be easy to fire should there be an early release or a breach. I could have been fired for someone elses malfeasance I found out later. We had one breach due to cell phone use down in the Reporter's area. We left all our records out and went to lunch, and when we came back we were fine and the miscreant identified. That is prophylactic security, and I'm fine with that -- no need for a scapegoat like me.

After I left that job I became an Requirements and process maven, and learned about information architecture, acquisitions and related laws. Since contracting is impermanent I was always looking for another position after each contract got to end. So I've applied to NSA several times, and been around some of their IT projects. I can pretty much verify that most of what is going on is based on cool technology being used to get information to go after terrorists. I also know that NSA has had the ability to spy on anyone it wants and has had that technology for most of it's history. In the right hands this is benign. In the wrong hands this is 1984. I'm worried. Not about Obama, but all the enthusiastic prosecutors waiting in the wings. It's they who have criminalized whistle-blowing and real dissent. I got to work with military medical IT and that was cool. The irony is, there I was pushing for better security. The medical folks are supposed to protect Personally Identifiable Information, and that requires that people only have need to know access limited to their area of concern and not only their clearance. There are ways to filter information so that people see what they are supposed to see. Better security means security that respects privacy rights, prevents unauthorized access, and defines unauthorized access to include sketchy access from corrupt officers. I was always puzzled by hard it was to get standards adopted.

Summary

Fact is good security is compatible with Democracy, but it involves letting the people watch the watchers and requiring all the evidence on the table. The day when "sources and methods" was a legitimate secret, probably should be over. I found out that the entire world operates security in similar manners. Some do it better than us (the Israelis), some more brutally (The Russians), some idiosyncratically (the Chinese). Bad Security is tyranny. Good security is simply boundary enforcement -- which is the heart of all people's rights.

There are lots of jobs in the spy business if you already have a clearance; mostly for people who know how to use and access a database, or search data. Meta Data has become an important business, and the ability to data mine personal information has become important to marketing, finance, as well as to law enforcement and the spook business. These cats are out of the bag and can't be put back. But we can put some strict controls on the acquisition and use of data. It is not legitimate property of companies or third parties. It is our personal data and therefore our personal property by right, and therefore someone taking ownership of it who is not trustworthy by us is a violation of public trust and usurpation. Once we understand that the real issues start to be clear. I've lived with NSA all my life. NSA never has scared me. It's those sketchy people who use their power for personal benefit who scare me.

Thanks to 9/11 the pretend wall between NSA spying outside USA and inside has vanished. I follow NSA in the news. Stories like how they started storing info from the internet even before the internet was commercialized, how they can store conversations from every phone on earth. More stuff that I couldn't share if I knew. Oh yes, it's an organization to be scared of. And NSA capabilities have a tendancy to become private powers. I run into folks who've spent time in jail because the NSA believed they had disrespected it; not even broken a real law. 30 years ago A Guy like Edward Snow never would have made it to Hong Kong and there was no NSA and there would have been no Edward Snow after he tried to leak that information. Oh yes, they can be very scary folks. Never did get a job there, probably never will. I'm telling this story because I've finally giving up on the prospect. Seriously, NSA you still can shut me up easy. Hire me. I'm not a tattle tale.

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