Lying, prying and spying: Is the NSA worth it?

"People in power hate it when you shine a light on what it is they do. They're like cockroaches, they like to operate in the dark." - Glenn Greenwald, author of The Guardian NSA monitoring story

The image above was posted on Facebook by LibertyManiacs.com, a company that sells T-shirts and such emblazoned with witty political messages. The story behind the NSA "ban" is that LibertyManiacs was selling a T-shirt with the NSA logo and the legend "The NSA, The only part of the government that listens" through Zazzle, an online printing company and ecommerce platform.

On June 7 Zazzle was sent a "cease and desist" order by the NSA's representatives and, according to LibertyManiacs's founder, Dan McCall, Zazzle was told they could no longer print that design as "the parody violates the intellectual property rights of the National Security Agency."A

[ALSO:How to opt out of the NSA's spying program]

Dan commented: "Well, on the positive side I could get the unenviable honorific of being 'the 1st man to receive a cease and desist from the National Security Agency for telling a joke.'"

Alas, the NSA still isn't finding Dan's products at all funny, and at just after 5 p.m. Pacific on Thursday, June 13, Dan posted to Facebook, "[The] jerks at the NSA have expanded their attack on my 1st Amendment rights by going after more of my stuff. More cease and desists. More products and designs. This is getting hilarious." This is a use of the word "hilarious" I wasn't previously aware of.

What is intriguing is the NSA admitted the first product banned was a parody, which means it is "protected from claims by the copyright owner of the original work under the fair use doctrine, which is codified in 17 U.S.C. ASS 107".

Of course, even if in reality the NSA has no legal leg to stand on, it is the 800-pound gorilla and can flex its muscles for what is, with respect to its budget, a trivial cost. As a consequence, if Dan's going to get them to back off and start selling those products again, he's going to have to spend a lot of money with lawyers.

This is, whichever way you look at it, monstrously wrong. First of all I'm amazed that any U.S. government agency can get away with claiming violation of "their" intellectual property rights when they are, in reality, part of us, and we the people, paid for said intellectual property. Sure, go after those ripoff artists in England or France should they dare to illegally use the hallowed logos of U.S. government agencies, but going after U.S. citizens for parody?

Second, I'm even more amazed that the NSA doesn't recognize the inherent PR problem they have created by a bureaucratic response to something that, given the negative publicity they're already receiving, can only make them look even more devious and manipulative than we now think they are, which is a brand new realization for most Americans.

Let's be clear, as I wrote last week, no one who has paid even the slightest attention to political and technology news over the last few years could be surprised at the revelations of the NSA's secret surveillance programs. The NSA's history of intelligence activities goes back to 1952 and we know that over that period the agency didn't sit around twiddling its thumbs.

Over the course of the agency's history the biggest impact on their activities has been technological, starting with the global spread of the telephone system, the incredible evolution and expansion of computer technology, the rise of the Internet and, critically, Sept. 11, 2001.

As a result of 9/11 the NSA's authority and budget expanded incredibly and the agency was central in a large number of warrantless surveillance programs, including the Terrorist Surveillance Program, the President's Surveillance Program, the Trailblazer Project, the Turbulence project, and Stellar Wind, most of which were revealed by leaks in 2005.

Apparently, these only impinged on Joe Sixpack's consciousness in the most fleeting way, and the recent revelations and the hyping by the mainstream news of the NSA surveillance programs have sent the horror and outrage level of the average American citizen to stratospheric levels.

The agency's deviousness was underlined when we discovered that the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, had delivered a bare-faced lie to an open congressional hearing back in March. At the hearing Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), in what we can now see was devious political maneuvering (as a member of the Senate Intelligence committee Wyden already knew the answer), asked, "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?"

Clapper had three choices: Tell the truth and reveal a national secret, refuse to answer which would have amounted to the same thing, or lie. Clapper opened door number three and responded, "No sir ... not wittingly."

Despite various members of congress and the administration now claiming that they want transparency in what the NSA and other agencies do in intelligence gathering, it's more or less certain that we will never have a picture of the full extent of what the NSA -- let alone the the CIA, the FBI, and all the other Three Letter Acronym agencies -- are up to. That's just not how the U.S. government operates and anyone who thinks that could change in our lifetimes or even our children's lifetimes would have to be monumentally ignorant and biblically optimistic.

On the other hand, if, as Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of the NSA, asserted in his first congressional testimony on June 12, that "dozens" of attacks had been foiled by the agency's large scale intelligence gathering, then perhaps there is a payoff. Unfortunately not everyone believes Gen. Alexander. For example, Sen. Wyden is one of those who argues that any attacks foiled by the NSA were achieved by conventional intelligence operations and not by the large scale surveillance programs.

But what we should all be troubled by given our parlous financial state, is the cost of the large scale intelligence gathering and the humongous infrastructure built to do so. As my old friend Winn Schwartau argues, when you figure out what can be done with even the most optimistic estimates of computer power backed by human analysts making operational decisions, then whatever the NSA can only process a few percent of all the data that is there to be gathered. This means they are getting very poor bang for the buck, but that there is, in any real accounting, no bang for the buck!

So, perhaps the biggest question to be asked about the NSA's activities is not whether they violate Americans' privacy or enable governmental overreach or violate laws, but whether what they're doing is one of the most expensive boondoggles in U.S. history.

Gibbs is probably surveilled in Ventura, Calif. If you're with the NSA, say "hi" to gearhead@gibbs.com. You can also follow him on Twitter and App.net (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater). Wait ... you're probably are already doing that.

Read more about wide area network in Network World's Wide Area Network section.

This story, "Lying, prying and spying: Is the NSA worth it?" was originally published by NetworkWorld .

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