Skip to main content

It's time to break up the NSA

By Bruce Schneier
updated 6:40 PM EST, Thu February 20, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Director of national intelligence said U.S. should have acknowledged surveillance
  • Bruce Schneier: NSA is too big and powerful; it's time to break up the agency
  • He says all bulk surveillance of Americans should be moved to the FBI
  • Schneier: Instead of working to weaken security, NSA should try to improve security for all

Editor's note: Bruce Schneier is a security technologist and author of "Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust Society Needs to Thrive."

(CNN) -- The NSA has become too big and too powerful. What was supposed to be a single agency with a dual mission -- protecting the security of U.S. communications and eavesdropping on the communications of our enemies -- has become unbalanced in the post-Cold War, all-terrorism-all-the-time era.

Putting the U.S. Cyber Command, the military's cyberwar wing, in the same location and under the same commander, expanded the NSA's power. The result is an agency that prioritizes intelligence gathering over security, and that's increasingly putting us all at risk. It's time we thought about breaking up the National Security Agency.

Broadly speaking, three types of NSA surveillance programs were exposed by the documents released by Edward Snowden. And while the media tends to lump them together, understanding their differences is critical to understanding how to divide up the NSA's missions.

Bruce Schneier
Bruce Schneier

The first is targeted surveillance.

This is best illustrated by the work of the NSA's Tailored Access Operations (TAO) group, including its catalog of hardware and software "implants" designed to be surreptitiously installed onto the enemy's computers. This sort of thing represents the best of the NSA and is exactly what we want it to do. That the United States has these capabilities, as scary as they might be, is cause for gratification.

The second is bulk surveillance, the NSA's collection of everything it can obtain on every communications channel to which it can get access. This includes things such as the NSA's bulk collection of call records, location data, e-mail messages and text messages.

This is where the NSA overreaches: collecting data on innocent Americans either incidentally or deliberately, and data on foreign citizens indiscriminately. It doesn't make us any safer, and it is liable to be abused. Even the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, acknowledged that the collection and storage of data was kept a secret for too long.

Sen. Paul: NSA lawsuit not a stunt
Greenwald: I will definitely come back

The third is the deliberate sabotaging of security. The primary example we have of this is the NSA's BULLRUN program, which tries to "insert vulnerabilities into commercial encryption systems, IT systems, networks and endpoint communication devices." This is the worst of the NSA's excesses, because it destroys our trust in the Internet, weakens the security all of us rely on and makes us more vulnerable to attackers worldwide.

That's the three: good, bad, very bad. Reorganizing the U.S. intelligence apparatus so it concentrates on our enemies requires breaking up the NSA along those functions.

First, TAO and its targeted surveillance mission should be moved under the control of U.S. Cyber Command, and Cyber Command should be completely separated from the NSA. Actively attacking enemy networks is an offensive military operation, and should be part of an offensive military unit.

Whatever rules of engagement Cyber Command operates under should apply equally to active operations such as sabotaging the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility in Iran and hacking a Belgian telephone company. If we're going to attack the infrastructure of a foreign nation, let it be a clear military operation.

Second, all surveillance of Americans should be moved to the FBI.

The FBI is charged with counterterrorism in the United States, and it needs to play that role. Any operations focused against U.S. citizens need to be subject to U.S. law, and the FBI is the best place to apply that law. That the NSA can, in the view of many, do an end-run around congressional oversight, legal due process and domestic laws is an affront to our Constitution and a danger to our society. The NSA's mission should be focused outside the United States -- for real, not just for show.

And third, the remainder of the NSA needs to be rebalanced so COMSEC (communications security) has priority over SIGINT (signals intelligence). Instead of working to deliberately weaken security for everyone, the NSA should work to improve security for everyone.

Computer and network security is hard, and we need the NSA's expertise to secure our social networks, business systems, computers, phones and critical infrastructure. Just recall the recent incidents of hacked accounts -- from Target to Kickstarter. What once seemed occasional now seems routine. Any NSA work to secure our networks and infrastructure can be done openly -- no secrecy required.

This is a radical solution, but the NSA's many harms require radical thinking. It's not far off from what the President's Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, charged with evaluating the NSA's current programs, recommended. Its 24th recommendation was to put the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command under different generals, and the 29th recommendation was to put encryption ahead of exploitation.

I have no illusions that anything like this will happen anytime soon, but it might be the only way to tame the enormous beast that the NSA has become.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bruce Schneier.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT