Editor’s note: Surveillance news sparks deja vu

June 16, 2013

Back in the 1990s, when I was still relatively new to the Washington Post, I wrote a story about how the National Security Agency had finally put a sign outside its headquarters announcing that it indeed existed at Fort Meade.

I thought the story was amusing. Everyone out in my neck of the woods knew the super-secret agency was based there. We all had acquaintances in Howard County who worked for “Fort Meade” or the “Department of Defense.”

A sign went up, and we shrugged our shoulders.

I had a sense of deja vu when the revelations starting rolling out about the government’s surveillance of telephone and Internet traffic.

Didn’t we all just assume authorities already had access to that data?

Didn’t anyone read the Patriot Act?

I was the technology editor when the 9/11 attacks rocked the nation. For weeks afterward, technology firm after technology firm came through the newspaper’s offices offering demonstrations of how their systems could have preempted the strikes. More than one executive flipped open a laptop to show how special data analytics could have caught Mohamed Atta, one of the hijacker-pilots of American Airlines Flight 11 that flew into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

I caught up with one of the executives six months later and asked if his firm ever won any work from the federal government. I’m not allowed to talk about that, was all he said.

That’s what it is like to work in the government IT sector. Some things companies can talk about; some things they can’t. When secrets are disclosed, it puts corporate leaders in an awkward position.

Kind of like it feels to be on the outside looking in.

Out in Howard County, contractors have been opening cybercenters near Fort Meade. There’s never been any mystery in my mind what they are doing out there, but truth be told I don’t really know.

I’m guessing a lot of people feel that way, and now we are all starting to learn more.

Dan Beyers is the founding editor of Capital Business, The Washington Post’s go-to source for news about the region’s business community.
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