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NSA can't trust 'brilliant' people, will automate sysadmins (privacysos.org)
83 points by detcader on Sept 2, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 56 comments



    The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the
    more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership 
    and planning coterie. This must result in minimization 
    of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an 
    increase in cognitive "secrecy tax") and consequent 
    system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased 
    ability to hold onto power as the environment demands
    adaption.
Julian Assange is seeming more and more prescient every other day.


> Julian Assange is seeming more and more prescient every other day.

Quite true.

He was considered quite bold and respectable for all his work until the cables happened. As long as his leaks did not have anything to do with back home you know. At least that's how it all seems to me.


Also the alleged rape really hasn't helped.


The cables are what created the celebrity. Relatively very few knew or cared about Assange before that point.


Another way of saying the character assassination didn't start until the cables were published.


> Before the change, "what we've done is we've put people in the loop of transferring data, securing networks and doing things that machines are probably better at doing," Alexander said.

Proving once again that the NSA has absolutely no fucking idea what it's doing at the absolute highest levels.


Maybe they could start automating those levels. It should be easier.


You thinking about bugzilla?


Maybe their systems are so poorly run backups are a sys admin swapping tapes.


The NSA like the military relies on people to not question authority and blindly follow orders.

Unfortunately for them, as society becomes a bit more self-aware every decade, it's harder to find such people and they also throw away their best talent when questioning orders is unacceptable.

This is why I find it horribly ironic that there are military people now who are anonymously posting that they "didn't sign up to bomb syria" (and punish the chemical murder of 1000s of civilians). What exactly did they think they were signing up for? To pick and choose what orders they would follow? Does the person who sits at a desk in the military think they have better morals for not actually pushing the button that literally fires the missiles?

Imagine how moral the US would be if every government agency like the military, the NSA, the CIA, the FBI, the TSA had a draft instead of volunteers. They would actually have a consciousness instead of scandal after scandal because people would not just accept the system blindly.


>They would actually have a consciousness instead of scandal after scandal because people would not just accept the system blindly

Well let's not get too high on the general populations' ability for independent moral authority. We know the results of the Milgram experiments. And we also know about the massacres of Vietnam, caused by units of mostly drafted soldiers. The ability to break from authority is not as strong as we like to think. And I include myself in that group as well, I know my primate psychology.


Actually 'I was just following orders' is not a defence. It's every soldiers obligation to question the moral standing of their orders. An illegal order, such as being told to bomb a church/mosque/hospital is invalid and shouldn't be obeyed.

Obviously it's very hard to have the moral courage to accept being bradley manninged (because some orders come all the way from the top), but the obligation to question orders has definitely been established.


Right, so when the commander-in-chief orders Guantanamo closed, you leave it open.

Basically every single person in the military who serves at Guantanamo in any capacity is disobeying a direct, signed order by the commander-in-chief.


>there are military people now who are anonymously posting that they "didn't sign up to bomb syria"

That's not what they are posting. They're posting that they didn't sign up to help al-Qaida achieve one of its military objectives.


Blind acceptance leads to reliability, which is a core feature of a military force.


This is hilarious? What's harder, doing things manually, or automating things in a way that the automation itself doesn't break, is self-healing, etc?

The kind of people that need to automate these sort of systems need to be even stronger systems programmers and administrators than the incumbent batch. Automation can be backdoored as well.


And this explains what's _really_ going to happen. The 90% of their sys-admins who've already morphed into dev-ops staff, are going to get officially re-classified as "not sys-admins" – and will continue to have unfettered access to the VMs, hypervisors, storage pools, hadoop clusters, and password databases that the analysts and management at the NSA use. (Only they'll invent some new rules, so it'll probably become a _double_ capital offense to embarrass the US government, the next Snowden-scale whistleblower will face getting assassinated _twice_…)


"We'll just build God" "But who's going to build the God-Builder?"

IT'S TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN


I'm sure those stronger systems people won't mind also being on call when the automation breaks down at 3am on Labor Day morning.


I'm just imagining the NSA sending an NSL to Amazon to get engineers to do their magic...


"Twitter announced that they need to hire less talented people that are less productive. A spokeswoman said, that though they have the necessary funds to hire the best talent they can get, they just couldn't deal with that much productivity. They are kindly asking that good programmers and sysadmins stop sending in applications. A new interviewing process will be established specifically designed to identify competent and talented applicants in order to deny their application."

Aaaaand that wouldn't happen ever, unless that "company" is funded by your tax dollars. Enjoy.


The money that Twitter makes is the tax dollars.

All productivity and excellence is used now to fuel an organization which punishes those who are productive and excellent.


> computer automated sysadmins.

Who will administer these 'computer automated sysadmins'? The entire matter reeks of nothing but bluster by a control freak overseeing a witch hunt. Further evidence that we should not assume the competence of intelligence agencies.


Fewer sysadmins compared to previously. And sysadmins with lesser political capability.


Yes but these sysadmins need to be stronger. The rationale given was not to have fewer sysadmins but dumber ones.


By the way...this NBC admission of Snowden creating new profiles and impersonating high-ranking intelligence officials is proof positive that Snowden wasn't lying.

If he could create any profile and impersonate say Gen. Alexander...then it is easily conceivable that he could access anyone's records.

Not that we didn't know this already...


I have 2 remarks : 1) I'm pretty sure either they are lying or they are going "blind", because an IT infrastructure project this big always fail on the first trial. 2) They are just borrowing time, with such a complex system to manage, the "computer" will get smarter and smarter. When it integrates Plato, the Snowden case will just be a footnote, the computer will directly kill the agency director for being so far from moral values.


This is either a good thing, that the NSA will not be able to attract the type of talent to continue doing these types of activities forever.

Or it is a bad thing, that incompetent people will still be doing these activities - thereby making it more likely that their systems will be more easily compromised and the data end up in the wrong hands easier.


It is slightly boggling to imagine what the new sysadmin hiring criteria might be after these statements.


There is one flaw in the plan though. How are they going to automate the automation of the servers? If they can't trust people any more, they're going to have to find a way to automate a system administrator without the help of a system administrator (presumably another automated process).

The ridiculousness of this proves that no matter how many billions of dollars and expensive infrastructure you have at your fingertips, the people in charge aren't very smart. Automate a system administrator? Good luck replicating a bearded Unix loving man with a penchant for energy drinks who gets angry every time something breaks. As someone who works alongside sys admins, I feel as though I am allowed to say that.

Amaze us, NSA.


On the one hand, fewer sysadmins means fewer chances for a Snowden to turn up among them. On the other hand, it means, should a Snowden turn up among the residual personnel needed to implement the automation, he/she can do even more damage.

However, this is neither here nor there, since automation is hard, and Alexander the Geek can't make it happen simply by giving an order, despite his four stars. But promising it is a way for him to explain himself after getting caught with his pants down. See, Congress! We recognize we have a problem. But trust us, we have a plan! We have a solution! Not.


Exactly this. General Keith Alexander is basically saving his own skin here by publicly showing he has a plan because I can only assume those in higher places are not all too happy about the Snowden breach and as usual in Government, looking for someone to blame.

Sure, certain aspects can definitely be automated. But it's kind of the equivalent of using robots in your factor that run on batteries. If the battery goes dead in a robot, how does the robot replace its own battery if it's not even on? Presumably another robot, but it proves automation is very hard,

There will always be human error though. Humans will be programming whatever automation Alexander has planned and that automation will take years to refine and perfect before it's close to flawless.


Computers are easy, and those weird bearded guys in the basement create all the problems. If it weren't for them, it'd all just work. We should fire those guys, because I only ever see them in the context of problems, which means all the problems are their fault.

Also, today I saw a bunch of guys in suits next to a burning building spraying it with water. Idiots! They wouldn't have to spray it with water if they hadn't set it on fire! We should automate fire protection and get rid of all the firefighters, as you only ever see fires when they're about, so they must be the cause.


if anyone has not seen Brazil, I recommend watching it. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0088846/


What could possibly go wrong?


Their "problem" is easily solvable by pairing sysadmins up. Make sure every command or windows click is seen an authorized by another, maybe even an anonymous sysadmin at a different location. If one sysadmin "steals" secrets, the other sysadmin would be implicated, so they have a lot of reason to pay attention. Costs will increase, of course.


Costs will either increase, or collusion or both.

Imagine they double their headcount - just to get more leaks, because they have more people looking at the data.


You pair them randomly so as two co-conspirators can't arrange to work together. You make sure the ones who are paired don't trust each other. You tell them that they are expected to report any suspicious behavior -- like someone mentioning the constitution -- and that they will be tested. You do test them. They get paired with an incognito auditor whose job is to offhandedly mention that what they're doing is violating someone's rights. If they don't report him, they're disciplined.

Of course, all these things also make it hard to convince them that they're the good guys.


Makes me wonder if the NSA will routinely use entrapment as a technique to catch would-be conspirators. Sounds like the best environment to serve ones country…


Welcome to NSA - proud users of the tactics of the East German Stasi


Sounds like a secret police within a secret (kind of) police.


Hammer dropped on a toe.

Instead of investigating process and even validity of hammer use, promptly removing all toes.


I've seen the brilliant comment repeated in 2-3 articles now. The assertion is that Snowden basically used su to become other (more privileged) users. One level of misdirection. How is this brilliant?


It's all relative. Ever seen Idiocracy?


The NSA can't trust 'brilliant' people huh? Worried that they might be acting against the NSA's best interest? Weird! I can't possibly imagine how they feel! Nope, not at all! It's not like I have a secretive government agency stockpiling of much of communications as they can get their hands on that could one day be taken out of context and used against me or something. Crazy!


If the Snowden leaks were a 12 on the damage scale of 1-10. What's it going to be when they flip the switch on the sysadmin factory factory and find themselves locked out of everything because of an off-by-one error?


Idea: Yeah, let's just keep the top 10% and make them work 10x harder.

Reality: The most loyal are the least productive resulting in widespread dissatisfaction and even more leaks.


It is very difficult to manipulate, misinform, and indoctrinate intelligent/skilled people who work with information and information systems.


How do you know this? If it is true, then why did it take so long to get the big leaks?


I rather read this to be a worrying signal that sysadmins are now expendable, and the NSA is happy to have an excuse to shed them.


And who said the 'NoOps' fad was over? :)


The start of Skynet. </sarcasm>


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paranoia_%28role-playing_game%2...

The Computer serves as the game's principal antagonist, and fears a number of threats to its 'perfect' society, such as The Outdoors, mutants, and secret societies (especially Communists). To deal with these threats, The Computer employs Troubleshooters, whose job is to go out, find trouble, and shoot it.


brilliant: bright and radiant. Not a part of the dark side.


"Smart people realise we're doing bad shit, so will resist it. Therefore, we can only hire unquestioning idiots."

This is why the government is now entirely run by unquestioning idiots.


Machines are predictable and trustworthy; humans are shifty, fickle, and expect things like 'rights' and 'livable wages'.

First they came for the computer janitors, and I did not speak for I was not a computer janitor.




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