Column by Paul Bonneau.
Exclusive to STR
I have been discussing with others the Snowden revelations, and an article  by industry professional Bruce Schneier came up, which is well worth the read. It brings to mind an event in my own past.
I was once a computer hardware designer for a small company that put out state-of-the-art machines for scientific processing, dealing with collecting and processing large amounts of data. A typical customer was oil companies that used them for oil exploration processing, but there were also customers processing Landsat data and synthetic aperture radar data. I even once wrote an application for Lockheed, for testing the Space Shuttle (I was a sort of “Jack of all trades” as an engineer).
One day I was given the task of installing one of our machines in a federal agency (which shall remain nameless) in the D.C. area, so I flew out there and did that. But, a strange thing happened on the flight back. My conscience started bothering me.
I was well aware this agency had done a lot of evil things in the name of “national security,” and my action had just aided them in doing it in the future, I guessed. Now in those days, I was not of the mind to question their overall mission; I thought that agency was needed. But they had undeniably done many things they should not have done, and now I was feeling bad in participating.
The next day when I went back to work, I walked over to the company president and told him of my issues with that. I also told him that was the end of my involvement with that agency; that I would install no more machines there, nor provide any customer support. He said OK, and that was the end of it. For all I know, his conscience was bothering him too; but I never heard of our company ever having any other dealings with the agency.
Shouldn’t I have had that attack of conscience before I installed the machine, rather than after? Well, yeah, that would have been better. But maybe that is not how consciences work? I don’t know what they are really, some subconscious thing saying, “Dude, you screwed up!” Maybe you have to screw up first.
I could have just rationalized the whole thing, for example using the old “can’t make omelettes without breaking eggs” excuse to let that agency off for what it had done. But I guess I have always been a bit leery of rationalization; it just seems shabby to me.
Perhaps you are now feeling uncomfortable about your work, what with Snowden’s revelations and all the churn going on around them. Maybe the old excuses about “fighting terror” are seeming shopworn to you, and you might be thinking it doesn’t help anyone, except some ruling thugs, to provide tools for state terror. That is your conscience talking. Listen to it.
There are some things you can do about it.
You can do as I did, and directly confront your boss, telling him things are going too far, and you refuse to provide engineering for what can obviously be used (and eventually, inevitably will be used) as state terror tools. This has some risk, of course. Perhaps your boss is also getting bothered by his conscience; but it’s also possible he is one of those psychopaths in government with no conscience to bother him. It’s your call. I hope you don’t have to emigrate to Russia.
You could form the high tech equivalent of “Oathkeepers,” but here we are really talking about some risk.
You could simply, quietly start looking for another job. There is lots of work in the industry that does not require you to sell your soul to do it.
You could bail out of computer work altogether. I did that for a while. “There’s more to life than just computers.” You don’t have to spend your entire working life sitting in a cubicle.
Or you can just rationalize your way out of your problem. Many people have done it. You’ll just be one of that crowd.
Will the evil work get done even if you don’t participate? Very likely, it will. But maybe the people they find to do it won’t be quite at your level, so the tools won’t be so good. Hard to say about that; but we are not talking about them, here. We are talking about you.