Former NSA and CIA director says terrorists love using Gmail

September 15, 2013

Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA and the CIA using air quotes at an event earlier this year. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden stood on the pulpit of a church across from the White House on Sunday and declared Gmail the preferred online service of terrorists. As part of an adult education forum at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Hayden gave a wide ranging speech on "the tension between security and liberty."

During the speech, he specifically defended Section 702 of the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act (FISA), which provides the legal basis for the PRISM program. In doing so, Hayden claimed "Gmail is the preferred Internet service provider of terrorists worldwide," presumably meaning online service rather than the actual provider of Internet service. He added: "I don't think you're going to see that in a Google commercial, but it's free, it's ubiquitous, so of course it is."

Asked whether the United States's promiscuous surveillance was setting a harmful example for other nations, Hayden suggested that the Internet's origins in the United States partially justifies the NSA's conduct. If the Web lasts another 500 years, he said, it may be the thing the United States is remembered for "the way the Romans are remembered for their roads."

"We built it here, and it was quintessentially American," he said, adding that partially due to that, much of traffic goes through American servers where the government "takes a picture of it for intelligence purposes."

That response may not comfort U.S. technology companies who are already seeing suspicion of the NSA hurting them with overseas customers. One report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) earlier in the summer predicted U.S. cloud service providers would lose out on $21.5 to $35 billion over the next three years due to recent revelations. More recently, the CEO of CloudFlare, a Web site security firm and network provider, said the gag orders on government requests for data are "insane" and the whole scandal is costing them customers.

Hayden also conceded that the United States. "could be fairly charged with the militarization of the World Wide Web." The NSA's Tactical Access Operations (TAO) is reportedly charged with hacking foreign targets to steal data and monitor communications. It also reportedly develops programs that could destroy or damage foreign computers and networks using cyberattacks.

At one point, Hayden expressed a distaste for online anonymity, saying "The problem I have with the Internet is that it's anonymous." But he noted, there is a struggle over that issue even inside government. The issue came to a head during the Arab Spring movement when the State Department was funding technology to protect the anonymity of activists so governments could not track down or repress their voices.

"We have a very difficult time with this," Hayden said. He then asked, "is our vision of the World Wide Web the global digital commons -- at this point you should see butterflies flying here and soft background meadow-like music -- or a global free fire zone?" Given that Hayden also compared the Internet to the wild west and Somalia, Hayden clearly leans toward the "global free fire zone" vision of the Internet.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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