As far as I know, my first contact with the signals intelligence (SIGINT) world came just over a decade ago when I was trying to help some software engineers figure out how to keep up, technologically, with the (legitimate) targets they were trying to collect on. Since then I’ve been continually struck by how fascinating SIGINT is in theory and how dull and technical it is in practice.
I was reminded of that juxtaposition this week. I thought the testimony on the Surveillance Transparency Act of 2013 was going to be something of a big deal. Apparently all of 14 other people on the Internet also thought this and viewed proceedings online along with me.
The sparsely attended hearing touched on big issues: American’s faith in their government, potential losses of billions in revenue for American businesses, the future of the Internet and whether increased transparency alone would be enough to remedy the current situation. But most of the conversation focused on whether or not the NSA could technically and practically provide the kind of reports being requested in this legislation (spoiler alert: they don’t think they can).
Unfortunately, the scandalous parts of this problem will remain fascinating while the solutions will likely appear dull and technical to the casual observer. Hopefully this doesn’t stop us from properly addressing these issues. The stakes are too high for us to get it wrong and we’re better off with a dull technical solution than ongoing scandal, regardless of how interesting it might be.