PRISM and its sister program which collects American phone records have been grabbing all of the national headlines, and yet few people understand either the agency, or the key leader, four star general Keith Alexander. While the long list of pros and cons for each program are currently being debated, it is also important to step back and look at the programs themselves, and the man running them.

PRISM and Keith Alexander

PRISM: A Shock For Americans

The breaking of PRISM has come as a dull sort of shock for the American people. Many people have already suspected that the government has been data-mining the internet, including social media. The scope and extent of these efforts, however, has remained largely hidden from the American public and indeed world public. As it turns out, the government has been quietly mining unprecedented amounts of data from internet uses, regularly pulling huge amounts of data, though supposedly with court approval from a “secret” court.

Most of the efforts to combat cyber attacks and support cyber spying have been undertaken by the National Security Agency (NSA). Until recently, the NSA has largely remained outside of the public’s view, with attention instead being deflected to the CIA, Homeland Security, traditional military, and other agencies. It turns out that in the modern world, the NSA may in fact be the new “CIA,” or the go-to agency tasked with monitoring global events. In many ways, the NSA now represents the front line of American intelligence efforts. And people within the industry claim that the agency is able to pull unprecedented amounts of resources and holds an immense amount of sway in D.C.

Whereas the CIA focuses on human intelligence by purchasing information from foreign government officials and other members of society, the NSA does most of its work online. Techno-spies and saboteurs may literally be trying to hack China’s nuclear weapons facilities, all while sitting on a cushy chair, in some tucked away office in Maryland. The NSA is housed inside Fort Meade on a huge campus that supports its own post office, security force, and fire department. In many senses, it is a self-contained city, bustling away as the world spins around it.

The NSA is Led by Keith Alexander

The NSA is led by the enigmatic and secretive 4 star General Keith Alexander.  In the wake of September 11t, Keith Alexander rose from a 1 star general with some 10,000 cyber spies at his command, to a 4 star general now commanding likely thousands more people. The actual size of the NSA remains classified, though its main campus is huge, supporting more than 18,000 parking spots. General Keith Alexander oversees divisions of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, collectively in charge of the cyber spy efforts of the three main branches of the army, and all housed at Fort Meade. He is also known for working closely with the CIA and other intelligence agencies.

General Keith Alexander’s online biography of the NSA’s website is rather terse and devoid of details. We know Keith Alexander was born in Syracuse, New York, married his high school sweet heart, and attended the U.S. Military Academy to kick off his long and distinguished military career. Perhaps more interesting than his biographic details is the trajectory of his career. General Alexander has become almost exclusively a behind-the-scene “techno warrior” and has earned the nickname “Alexander the Geek” among his coworkers.

Keith Alexander’s Efforts Have Already Paid Huge Dividends

General Alexander’s efforts have already paid huge dividends. Sometime in the mid-2000’s the agency developed Stuxnet to infiltrate the Iranian nuclear research facility in Nantaz. The worm was able to destroy at least a hundred nuclear centrifuges. No bombs were needed, no James Bonds were running around the facility setting bombs. Instead, a worm was used to infiltrate the facilities software programs to wreak havoc.

With energy grids, air ports, nuclear facilities, and everything else now relying on advanced computer software, the notion of cyber warfare is both very real, and terrifying. While few people would question the defensive aspects of cyber warfare, many are now beginning to question the offensive and personal privacy aspects.

PRISM And General Keith Alexander

Of course, this now leaves the American people forced to ask some serious questions. The government needs to monitor communications between terrorists and others, but at what point does this cross the line? Much of the NSA’s efforts are actually directed at foreign individuals, so do they enjoy any constitutional protection, or protection under any other laws? How about the citizens of close allies, such as Australia? Does the U.S. government have a right to monitor such people at will?