The limits of surveillance

Until a few years ago, the U.S. National Security Agency was so shrouded in mystery that when it was asked about its initials, the standard reply was that they stood for “No Such Agency.” The top leadership of the agency and their political masters must yearn for those days.

Now they must wake every morning wondering what new revelation there will be about the agency’s excesses, usually via leaker/whistleblower Mr. Edward Snowden or the investigations by reporters following up on his leads.

The fact that the NSA is engaged in the mass vacuuming of data from every conceivable source should come as no surprise. Nor should we be shocked to discover that there have been violations of rules that ostensibly restrict the collection of data to foreign — “non-U.S.” — sources, or even that the United States is spying on its friends and allies. Contrary to the dictum of Henry Stimson, the U.S. secretary of state from 1929 to 1933, “gentlemen do read other people’s mail.”

The offense and outrage that has been heard in allied capitals following the most recent reports appear contrived, recalling nothing so much as Capt. Renault’s “shock” (in the film “Casablanca”) to discover that gambling is going on in Rick’s casino as he pockets his weekly bribe.

In fact, the analogy is better than most care to admit: Those foreign governments have been deeply complicit in either the collection of that intelligence, often passing on their information to the U.S., or its eventual use when Washington provides it to those allies’ security services.

If those foreign leaders are genuinely surprised, then that says more about their relations with their own security services than their relationship with the U.S. It is more likely that the official complaints are far more utilitarian. In some instances, they are posturing for domestic audiences who genuinely fear state intrusions on their lives, or are angered by their government’s seeming subordination to U.S. interests, or prefer to remain unaware of what is required to counter the threat of terrorism.

In some cases, those allied governments will use these revelations for their own purposes. Expect France and Germany to press for access to the intelligence shared among the “Five Eyes” — Australia, Canada, Great Britain New Zealand and the U.S. — a cozy arrangement that has always irritated those left out of it.

They may also use the reports as leverage in negotiations over a trans-Atlantic free trade agreement. While such a deal is as much in Europe’s interest as that of the U.S., the news is likely to shape rules and outcomes that concern the development and application of information technologies.

The most significant impact is likely to be in the area of data storage: Reports of U.S. government deals with information services and content providers will press negotiators in all countries to demand that information about their citizens remain within their national borders to ensure that it is not subject to “legal” U.S. intrusions. Could this portend the Balkanization of the Internet as a thicket of national rules and regulations emerges?

Even if spying is a fact of life, there should be some limits on who is surveilled. It is hard to imagine the national security value of information gleaned from phone calls by the College of Cardinals in the Vatican.

Listening to the private calls of German Chancellor Angela Merkel may provide some information of value, but it is hard to believe that the same intelligence could not have been gathered from other sources without the risk of embarrassment if the effort was discovered.

Two conclusions must be drawn. Either political overseers were indifferent to the consequences of the inevitable revelations or, more likely still, the overseers were not informed of the depth and breadth of these intelligence collection programs. If the overseers were kept in the dark, then the heads of these organizations should pay with their jobs.

Technology has reached the stage where near ubiquitous surveillance and monitoring is possible. In such an environment, the only comfort we as citizens can have is in the ability and intentions of the political overseers — the people we elect.

If they are kept in the dark because of laziness, venality or the notion of “plausible deniability,” then the system cannot work. In representative government, we delegate power to them. The legitimacy and credibility of the entire edifice of government depends on our legislators being informed and capable of doing their jobs.

Intelligence and security services may not like the constraints under which they operate — whether the issue is NSA’s mission or the constraints imposed by the constitution — but they are the result of the democratic process and reflect a consensus reached by society. Individuals, whether the heads of intelligence agencies or ordinary citizens, do not get to pick and choose the laws and regulations that they will honor.

NSA spying is not a problem; NSA’s disregard for the limits imposed upon it is.

  • Osaka48

    I am in agreement that the U.S. NSA (and other) spying efforts should be curtailed where personal privacy is violated.

    On the other hand, a few have forgotten that years ago, it was China’s Hu Jintao that recognized the huge value of ‘cyber spying’ and set up a special section of the PLA with funding to proceed on this path.

    Since then, the ‘West’ has been hit with cyber spying attacks from within China… private industry, the military industrial complex, and military sites across the globe.

    These attacks were successful in gaining secret material.

    While Western intelligence gathering needs to be refocused, let it be focused on true enemies of the West.