What if the NSA reinvented itself as a consumer products company?

Might as well put Big Data to use

Miley did it. Pistachio nuts are doing it. Lady Gaga does it every year.

Maybe it's time the National Security Agency thought about rebranding.

Blessed with the best scientists and technologists in the world, campuses in dozens of countries, data repositories that most companies couldn't dream of, and a reputation for cutting-edge innovation, the NSA's next director might want to do more with his organization's assets than mere intelligence gathering and Big Brothering.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

If the NSA rebranded itself as a consumer products company, its customer solutions center might finally deserve its name. Since the NSA no longer has to keep its methods secret, why not put them to good use?

The idea came to me this weekend, when I relinquished my wallet and cell phone to thieves. Apple allows you to geolocate your stolen phone, but the thieves were smart and turned the phone off, probably even taking out the battery. We've learned that the NSA has ways of activating tiny residual power supplies within the guts of a phone, so I was thinking: Wouldn't it be great if, for a fee, the NSA could spray the area where I lost my phone with photons targeting the digital identity associated with my phone. They could commander cell towers and send out those pulses, and by some technological wizardry, force my dormant phone to ping the nearest tower(s). That way, I could give the police the coordinates and let them recover my property.

If you're a parent, and you want to track your kids, the NSA's Parental Shield program allows you to keep track of the metadata associated with each telephone call or text message that's sent or received from your child's phone. Heck, with or without the kid's agreement, the NSA could even allow parents to monitor the content of those calls in real time, courtesy of its NUCLEON or PINWALE databases.

Kid goes to a party and you worry that he's up to no good? The NSA can remotely active his cell phone to take a picture of his surroundings, so you can see whether he's in the company of bongs or billiard balls. Speaking of balls, I suppose the service could be useful for amateur detectives on the hunt for cheaters, too.

Under NSA's Money Box program, implants inside of credit cards — the newer ones without magnetic strips — could reduce fraud to zero. Since the NSA is able to collect geographic metadata from just about any company in the world, parents can let their children go on trips anywhere and still be able to keep tabs on their location.

Imagine a NSA smart watch; the Pebble and Galaxy Gear: Meet Snort. It's not just a repository of computer network exploitation tools, it's a brutally efficient atomic clock, navigation device, virtual credit card, and calorie counter. Not only does it tell time, it can subtly alter the time of other clocks around it, meaning that you'd never be late for a key meeting. It could tell you everything about everyone around you — ok, maybe people might have to opt in, but it's only privacy we're worried about it, not anything that actual consumers seem to have a problem with. It could alert you to stay away from people you don't like. Every day, download your data to your phone or computer. You'll be able to see how far you've walked, how many calories you've burned, and the probability that people you came into contact with were associated with Al Qaeda or an affiliate.

If anti-virus software was touted as "NSA Approved! — Not Even We Could Break Through (Wink)" it could sell millions of copies.

Secure encryption...maybe quantum encryption? "So Secure, We Can't Tell You How Much We Spend A Year Trying To Break It Lest Switzerland Find Out."

There are, I'm sure, laws and stuff to prevent the NSA from actually entering the consumer space. But an easily intercepted wireless writer can dream, eh?

To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us