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For years, the NSA has imagined a digital defense program that would let it stop cyber warfare attacks before they happened. But thanks to whistleblower Edward Snowden, it might have to keep on dreaming.

As The New York Times reports, Snowden’s leaks about the inner workings of the NSA’s PRISM spying program have likely put a major damper on the NSA’s ability to execute its cyber defense vision.

One program proposed by NSA director General Keith Alexander is essentially a digital version of the space-based “Star Wars” missile defense program Ronald Reagan proposed in 1983: If bad guys launched digital attacks against U.S. companies or institutions, the NSA’s system would intercept and stop them — hopefully before they caused any damage.

The problem, however, is that such a system would sound a whole lot like a more elaborate version of the NSA’s already-controversial spying programs: In order to intercept and stop attacks, the NSA would first need to tap and scan all traffic entering the U.S. Imagine proposing such a system in the post-Edward Snowden world.

Speaking to The New York Times, one official put it like this: “I mean, who would believe the N.S.A. when it insists it is blocking Chinese attacks but not using the same technology to read your e-mail?”

Of course, if history is any precedent, there’s probably not much preventing the NSA from implementing its program even without widespread support.


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