As the first digital president, Barack Obama is learning the hard way how difficult it can be to maintain privacy in the information age. Earlier this year, his passport file was snooped by contract workers in the State Department. In October, someone at Immigration and Customs Enforcement leaked information about his aunt’s immigration status. And in November, Verizon employees peeked at his cell phone records.
What these three incidents illustrate is not that computerized databases are vulnerable to hacking—we already knew that, and anyway the perpetrators all had legitimate access to the systems they used—but how important audit is as a security measure.
When we think about security, we commonly think about preventive measures: locks to keep burglars out of our homes, bank safes to keep thieves from our money, and airport screeners to keep guns and bombs off airplanes. We might also think of detection and response measures: alarms that go off when burglars pick our locks or dynamite open bank safes, sky marshals on airplanes who respond when a hijacker manages to sneak a gun through airport security. But audit, figuring out who did what after the fact, is often far more important than any of those other three.
Most security against crime comes from audit. Of course we use locks and alarms, but we don’t wear bulletproof vests. The police provide for our safety by investigating crimes after the fact and prosecuting the guilty: that’s audit.
Audit helps ensure that people don’t abuse positions of trust. The cash register, for example, is basically an audit system. Cashiers have to handle the store’s money. To ensure they don’t skim from the till, the cash register keeps an audit trail of every transaction. The store owner can look at the register totals at the end of the day and make sure the amount of money in the register is the amount that should be there.
The same idea secures us from police abuse, too. The police have enormous power, including the ability to intrude into very intimate aspects of our life in order to solve crimes and keep the peace. This is generally a good thing, but to ensure that the police don’t abuse this power, we put in place systems of audit like the warrant process.
The whole NSA warrantless eavesdropping scandal was about this. Some misleadingly painted it as allowing the government to eavesdrop on foreign terrorists, but the government always had that authority. What the government wanted was to not have to submit a warrant, even after the fact, to a secret FISA court. What they wanted was to not be subject to audit.
That would be an incredibly bad idea. Law enforcement systems that don’t have good audit features designed in, or are exempt from this sort of audit-based oversight, are much more prone to abuse by those in power—because they can abuse the system without the risk of getting caught. Audit is essential as the NSA increases its domestic spying. And large police databases, like the FBI Next Generation Identification System, need to have strong audit features built in.
For computerized database systems like that—systems entrusted with other people’s information—audit is a very important security mechanism. Hospitals need to keep databases of very personal health information, and doctors and nurses need to be able to access that information quickly and easily. A good audit record of who accessed what when is the best way to ensure that those trusted with our medical information don’t abuse that trust. It’s the same with IRS records, credit reports, police databases, telephone records – anything personal that someone might want to peek at during the course of his job.
Which brings us back to President Obama. In each of those three examples, someone in a position of trust inappropriately accessed personal information. The difference between how they played out is due to differences in audit. The State Department’s audit worked best; they had alarm systems in place that alerted superiors when Obama’s passport files were accessed and who accessed them. Verizon’s audit mechanisms worked less well; they discovered the inappropriate account access and have narrowed the culprits down to a few people. Audit at Immigration and Customs Enforcement was far less effective; they still don’t know who accessed the information.
Large databases filled with personal information, whether managed by governments or corporations, are an essential aspect of the information age. And they each need to be accessed, for legitimate purposes, by thousands or tens of thousands of people. The only way to ensure those people don’t abuse the power they’re entrusted with is through audit. Without it, we will simply never know who’s peeking at what.
This essay first appeared on the Wall Street Journal website.
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