Is Perfect Citizen national security, or Big Brother in disguise?

a stack of computer motherboards

Perfect Citizen is an NSA surveillance program designed to prevent U.S. infrastructure from cyber attack, but some see Big Brother looking over their shoulder. Flickr photo.

“Perfect Citizen” is a federal government program that empowers the National Security Agency (NSA) to monitor the computer networks of public and private entities. The purpose of Perfect Citizen is to prevent cyber attacks against resources considered vital to national security such as public utilities and power plants. Public Citizen is reassuring internet security to some, and a disconcerting intrusion to others, who see its massive automated NSA surveillance of American companies and citizens as Big Brother.

Perfect Citizen: Internet security on steroids

The Perfect Citizen story broke Thursday in the Wall Street Journal. The Journal reports that surveillance by the NSA, the government’s chief eavesdropping agency, would rely on a set of sensors deployed in computer networks for critical infrastructure that would be triggered by unusual activity suggesting an impending cyber attack. Defense contractor Raytheon Corp. recently won a classified contract for phase one of Perfect Citizen, valued at up to $100 million. Some industry and government officials who know about Perfect Citizen see it as an intrusion by the NSA into domestic affairs. Others say it the NSA surveillance is long overdue Internet security for preventing an emerging threat, and that the NSA is the only agency with the gear and experience to handle the job.

The NSA promises to share

The Journal article explains that Perfect Citizen will be applied to older computer networks that were designed before Internet security was an issue. Many of those networks run everything from subway systems to air-traffic control networks. Since they have been linked to the Internet, they’re more efficient, but extremely vulnerable to cyber attack. The NSA said Perfect Citizen will allow it to collect and share intelligence on cyber attacks that all companies can use for network security … as much as they think we need to know.

Can we trust Big Brother to behave?

Perhaps because of its Orwellian title, Perfect Citizen makes some people uncomfortable. PC World reports that their concern is that Perfect Citizen could be just the beginning and that the NSA will expand its authority to monitor all domestic network activity. Access to the computer networks of entities like public utilities might also provide the NSA with access to details regarding the power usage or travel plans of private companies and individual citizens. It remains to be seen if Perfect Citizen can protect national security without violating the rights and privacy of the private citizen.

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