This article originally appeared on Zócalo Public Square.
Dear National Security Agency,
We need to have a chat, so I trust you’re reading this.
Of course you are. Good. Now, let’s see … how should I put this? Look, you've done a great job cultivating that whole "spook" image for the past 60 years. Really, you've just been terrifyingly adept at creating an environment of ironclad secrecy, even more so than the CIA, which has bungled too many overseas jobs to be the omnipotent, untouchable agency it would like us to think it is.
Times are changing, though. For the past several generations, you've been the rulers of all information, with no one to challenge you. Americans just had to trust that the good, quiet folk at the NSA were looking out for them, because no one else could handle data on such a large scale. It was a simpler time, back when the Internet was young and the Web was just a seed of an idea, and our idea of "big data" was the Yellow Pages.
There are new kids in town, though—kids who grew up on data. They were raised to dish out and take in as much data as possible, and they do it for fun. To you, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and all the rest of it are the latest places from which to siphon information—but to these new kids, they’re home. It’s where they grew up, which is why they're much better at what you do and why you hire so many of them.
Now, what happens when you raise a generation on a steady diet of data and then try to keep naughty secrets? They're going to ask questions. They grew up in a world where information was free. They learned more about the world around them than could ever be learned in school, and they went online for the answers to the questions their parents and teachers wouldn't answer. They grew up not just appreciating that information was free, but expecting information to be free.
It gets worse. Not only are you hiring millennials, for whom secrecy is anathema—you're hiring millennial hackers. And hacking, as you well know, means finding ways of turning technology to serve a purpose other than its intended one. When information isn't free, these people have the ability and the will to free it.
I know this because I'm one of them. I may not have top-secret clearance and make six figures working for one of your contractors, but Edward Snowden’s demographic profile still hits close to home. When I was a boy, I used to hack into my computer games to add fart sounds to them. I built my own computers. I made my sister's Teddy Ruxpin say horrible, horrible things. When I get a new phone, its hackability is my No. 1 buying consideration.
When I get my hands on a new piece of technology, my first thought isn't about what it can do. It’s about what it can't do and how I can force it to overcome its limitations and do what I want. I then wonder, "Why wasn't I ‘allowed’ to do this in the first place?" See, we millennial hackers simply cannot take anything at face value. We’re a bit contrarian and stubborn by nature. It’s why we’re good at what we do. The more constraints you place on us (be they workplace, physical, technological, or copyright), the more we feel a need to disregard, challenge, or overcome those constraints.
To be a hacker is to be cynical about whatever "solid" information or limits you're faced with, to remove layers of consumer sheen or government spin until raw components are laid bare to reconstruct at will. You reward people like me with fat salaries when we do this with technology, so there's little sense in expecting us not do the same in the rest of our lives—with your policies, rules, information, even with our own personal lives. We tinker, probe, deconstruct, and reassemble for other purposes. One thing we don’t do is blindly put hand to heart and sing “God Bless America”—unless we’re in a North Korean gulag and it’s a contrarian move.
Do you see the problem? You need my kind of people for our understanding of data, but we don't necessarily want or need you. You are anathema to our values and expectations. Sure, you've got some very smart graybeards who can do some amazing things, but they're not going to be the bulk of your army for long, if they even still are. You have no choice but to keep hiring these hackers who didn't grow up having data hidden from them. It’s ironic that you’re becoming so reliant on people who really have no business in a tight-lipped, hierarchical quasi-militarized institution. We are the ones you should be snooping on, if only you could snoop without us.
I feel your pain.
Edward Snowden smoked you, and it wasn't even very hard for him. Now, I know what you're going to say: "It won't happen again! We'll improve security!" Who is going to improve your security? Is it going to be the naval officers you used to hire, respectful of hierarchy and used to a military lifestyle? Or is it going to be contractors with the information freedom ideals of the millennial hacker? Yeah, I thought so.
Let's face it: This isn't going to be the last time your secrets are aired to the public. It's probably not even going to be the last time this year that your secrets are aired to the public by another Edward Snowden, because you've got countless Edward Snowdens on your payroll whose first—not last—instinct is to blow open your information infrastructure. I mean, you tried to recruit me years ago, for goodness’ sake. Those confidential recruitment materials that said "For Your Eyes Only" all over them? Yeah, I showed those to everyone I knew, mostly because you were so heavy-handed with all the confidential stuff.
The important thing now is not to panic. No tears. You're a big, strong, spooky organization, right? You don't have to clean out your desk. You've still got a big role to play in the cyberwarfare of the next several decades. You're just learning a hard lesson here, and I realize you’re partly being demonized for implementing what the White House and Congress want. However, you have no choice but to keep hiring these young, entitled, informed, data-driven hackers, who pretty soon might not have any secrets to leak because the Snowdens in your midst will have forced you to turn into a fully transparent (but still efficient!) organization.
Now that I think of it, you really should have played up the six-figure salary and Hawaii angle in those recruiting materials you gave me. I would’ve kept your secrets. Really.
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate, and Zócalo Public Square, a partnership of the New America Foundation and Arizona State University.
Read more on Slate about the NSA’s secret snooping programs.