Slippery Slopes, Mission Creep, and NSA, Part 2

Mission creep, known in the software world as creeping featurism, reflects the tendency of any successful organization to add more tasks to its list, so as to become more important to the bureaucracy.

Sometimes agencies are smart enough to avoid it. For years, every time there was some sort of spectacular crime, the politicians first reaction was to make it a federal offense, and turn it over to the FBI. The FBI worked very hard to avoid these additional duties, partly because they never came with the resources needed to do them.

Of course, some organizations aren’t as smart as the FBI. DHS, for example, or its mini-me, TSA. They keep expanding the areas in which they are not contributing to American security or safety. DHS does this because it’s in its DNA. Think of it as the administrative equivalent of Katamari¬†Damacy. TSA, of course, because fuck you.

Mission creep is bad enough, but there’s a more insidious flaw, probably best described as “we’ve got ’em, let’s launch ’em“. If you have a capability, and that capability is applicable in some way to the current situation, then there’s an almost overwhelming urge to use it. I’m of the opinion that “treating citizen organization X as if they were terrorists” comes from that. If you have a multimillion dollar “fusion center”, with people sitting around trying to figure out how to keep both thumbs warm, and Occupy X sets up camp in a nearby public park, of course you want to exercise your system by tracking them. Of course you want to show in your reports that you are on to every possible “threat”. Even as I typed this, a new story surfaced, about police using driver’s license photos as a permanent lineup.

As an aside, this is likely the cause of the upsurge in SWAT team deployments in support of the recovery of overdue library books (and I exaggerate only slightly). You have a highly trained, highly paid team of hair-trigger Rambo-wannabes just daring any terrorist to start something on their patch. But of course, there aren’t any terrorists. The overwhelming majority of plots broken up by the FBI have been arguably government entrapment of inept nebbishes. So, even if there’s no terrorists, there’s always drug busts of state-legal marijuana clinics. Or RIAA-targeted CD resale stores. Or various kinds of white-collar crime that can be labeled ‘cyber’, which is almost as bad as WMD and so deserve the SWAT treatment.

To get back on topic, in the last decade or so we’ve spent billions of dollars and millions of man-hours defending against a threat that is barely detectable, so that we can (as Snowden recently said) potentially reveal a potential terrorist with the potential to kill fewer Americans than our own police. When you have this kind of organization, and something occurs that can be made to be construed as falling within its purview — dissent, whistleblowing, unauthorized leaks — of course the powers that be will attempt to use it to their advantage and the detriment of Democracy. That’s what has people worried. In the back of everyone’s mind is the whispered voice “they came for my metadata, and I said nothing…”.

Quite naturally, everyone in power denies this possibility. It would not be allowed because, in the immortal words of a former President, “That, would be wrong“.

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