Electronic surveillance of all by all
6 Nov 2013|

The arcane world of electronic surveillance is suddenly prominent. Based on Edward Snowden’s comments, the media holds that America dramatically expanded electronic surveillance after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to include Angela Merkel, 35 other foreign leaders and the populations of France, Brazil, Spain and many others.

So what? The supporters of such types of surveillance claim that everybody is doing it. That’s not the soundest of arguments however, and it’s worth understanding why ‘everyone’ is so enamoured with the idea.

Machiavelli advised that any action was valued that advanced the state. The national interest should drive a state’s actions but these actions should be judged against the results achieved. Actions that weaken the state, that are reckless and that are indifferent to the range of possible consequences are deemed imprudent. The results achieved justify the actions taken; this is ‘the morality of results’. So for those that are international relations realists the question of electronic surveillance shouldn’t be related to some higher moral frame—or some obsession—but in terms of advancing the national interest. Success generates its own morality.

America’s National Security Agency has advanced some strong arguments by noting its successes in the war against Al-Qaeda. For example, in addressing Spanish critics, the NSA noted that it helped assist in the release of kidnapped aid workers. There appear similarly strong arguments for the electronic surveillance of bad states—think Bletchley Park and the Nazis. The case for electronic surveillance focussed on direct armed and dangerous threats to national security is compelling.

But an NSA history observes that when electronic surveillance really mattered during the Vietnam War ‘critical information was mishandled, misinterpreted, lost, or ignored. Hoovering up information is one thing, but making effective use of it another. And there’s a further worry. The ships in the Gulf of Tonkin NSA failure weren’t just having an offshore cruise; rather they were part of a close-in electronic surveillance program that attracted North Vietnamese attention. Signals intelligence collection in this case unintentionally led to large-scale American intervention in Vietnam. Perhaps, overall, this didn’t advance American national interest.

This is all a quite narrow view on spying: keep a watch on direct national security threats, properly analyse what has been obtained and avoiding starting wars when collecting information. But there’s a more expansive position, which embraces such approaches as spying on allied leaders, even close allies with gold-standard alliances.

The motivation here isn’t a threat that the spyee country represents to national security but rather the aim of better understand the ‘leadership intentions’ of allies. This position wasn’t publically articulated before Snowden and the furor since shows why. Friends trust friends. If they have a question they ask, not tap their phone for a decade or more. It’s particularly ironic for Merkel: spied on by the Stasi, now spied on by America.

This ‘naive’ viewpoint is a liberal one that places value on cooperation for absolute gains where all involved are better off. To realists this is hogwash. If the Germans don’t like being spied on, this viewpoint means they are entitled to spy on the US—indeed encouraged to. Not quite true. Israel, an American friend, has history here; their spy remains incarcerated and while Israel no longer undertakes such practices, some think Israel is now itself a target. Those who think no one should make a fuss if spied on are rarely as sanguine when they’re the target.

There’s a difference between realist alliances with authoritarian states with which there’s a common threat (such as the west and the Soviets during WWII) and alliances of liberal democracies working together with shared values for the common good. In the latter, where a security community exists, surely other methods of communicating information could be employed before conducting electronic surveillance. If not, then it might be worth asking much bigger questions on the relationship.

Beyond the narrow lens of national security, the more expansive view has a further dimension. National security relies on economic security so why shouldn’t national electronic surveillance means be used to gain insider information? In the globalised neoliberal world this is all a bit problematic. Trade agreements are made because both sides find them mutually beneficial, not to simply exploit others. An argument is that such electronic surveillance means you know the other side’s bottom line. The alternative may be to ask your trade partner’s political leaders what’s unacceptable to them. I suspect there’s little doubt on this in most negotiations!

Electronic surveillance of big businesses sounds promising but, given many are multi-national, damaging them may be an own goal. Your citizens and their super funds might own the multi-national company directly or indirectly. Your country may be seeking their investment. Assuming useful secrets are gained, who should get this information? If a local firm, the issues of who owns it and who gets the profits in a globalised world remain. And it’s is giving some especially favored firm a leg up. There are echoes of some new form of crony capitalism here. Giving favorites privileged access to the state apparatus for their own personal financial benefit is untidy. In neoliberal thinking this does not make more efficient markets and better societies but rather works against it. Is all this in the national interest?

This returns us to the more narrow view of electronic surveillance being preferred for security against threats—even if the temptations of using electronic surveillance for other purposes are almost overwhelming. But the narrow view isn’t actually that narrow. In the days of transnational extremists, there’s no domestic and international; it’s all one. Cross border electronic surveillance of others’ civil societies might well yield good security outcomes, but is highly contentious and needs much thought—and maybe closer cooperation.

Peter Layton is undertaking a research PhD in grand strategy at UNSW, and has been an associate professor of national security strategy at the US National Defense University. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.