The Shadowy Empire

June 18, 2013

The last few days have produced a flurry of disclosures about surveillance of Americans by our government, and the role and scope of private contractors in the security arena. But we should look behind the headlines at what we know about this shadowy empire. Of course, these revelations should compel Congress and the public to carefully scrutinize the conditions, scope, and degree to which Americans are being spied upon. Obviously we must do the utmost to ensure America's families are safe and secure without trampling on our citizens' fundamental civil rights and liberties. However, there is far more to examine in the aftermath of these events. Along with the privacy issues, Americans should be concerned with the scale, cost, and the extent to which this governmental function has been outsourced to private contractors.

The surrounding media attention, and the admission by a private security contractor that he had leaked the private information, has obscured another disturbing story about information disclosure that would have been headline news in Washington under different circumstances. It appears that some people had inside information about a pending decision in the Department of Health and Human Services about health insurance companies' treatment under the Affordable Care Act that prompted a huge spike in trading for those insurance companies as individuals cashed in on their prior knowledge. There were more than 400 people in the agency, and dozens more throughout the federal government, who had access to and were working on that information.

With 400 or more people in the know, it is difficult to maintain the highest level of secrecy and accountability. This is a case where there was an apparent security breach and people profited from it. It is outrageous, wildly inappropriate, and illegal, but not wholly unexpected. If this kind of leak can happen with 400 people having access to sensitive information, consider the inherent challenges created by our vast, sprawling security apparatus, where nearly 5 million people have access to confidential or secret security data, including more than 1.4 million with top-secret clearance. These people are not just employees of government agencies across the country. Private contractors make up 21 percent (1,065,787) of the total number of clearance holders.

The self-identified leaker, Edward Snowden, was not a government employee, but a young, relatively new, junior, private security analyst for a contractor. Frankly, with so many people having access, I'm not surprised that sensitive information was leaked; I'm surprised that it's ever kept secret. It is past time for Congress and the American people to revisit a structure that has grown out of control and entrenched itself, with the potential risks to our liberty and national security far outweighing the benefits of the costly expansion. Even if you somehow prevent rogue elements, there is another fundamental danger: data overload. Think about the army of people continuously collecting billions of items of information. They are using powerful computer modeling tools to sort and assimilate data, but I fear it's likely that the sea of information is too much for anyone to navigate. It is easy to imagine a runaway system so inefficient, so large, and so unwieldy that essential information is lost in the crush of data. America cannot afford to put our families at risk with too much activity any more than we would tolerate too little....