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  • Sep 22, 2014
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Edward Snowden
CommentInsight & Opinion

Snowden revelations won't change scale of US spying

Martin Murphy says the Snowden revelations will change neither the extent of American surveillance, nor the broad acceptance even among democracies of the need for espionage

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 June, 2013, 3:45am

After all the breathless commentary about the Edward Snowden cyberspying case is said and done, and the hero-villain rides off into the sunset, critics of America will be left with an unsettling reality. Little will have changed in what many now see as a massive surveillance state in the US.

Like the military-industrial complex before it, the US surveillance and intelligence community is now a multibillion-dollar industry with deeply entrenched interests, a robust government-business-private contractor revolving door, and a general acceptance by most Americans that certain activities are needed to protect the country.

The scale of the industry may astonish some, but the information has been in the public domain for some time. In just one example, a two-year Washington Post investigative report in 2010 revealed that some 1,271 government organisations and 1,931 private companies were working on programmes related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence across the US, employing millions of Americans.

More recent public information has highlighted the increasingly deep connections between Silicon Valley and the National Security Agency, given that both are now in the same business of looking for ways to collect, analyse and exploit large pools of data.

With such resources invested, reforming current practice is certain to be an uphill battle. President Barack Obama has promised new checks and more transparency on US domestic surveillance and a national debate on the issue. But it will take a seismic shift in public and congressional attitudes to fundamentally alter America's foreign surveillance programmes. And opinion polls in the US say that such a shift may be a long time coming.

A recent Pew Research Centre/ USA Today poll showed that 54 per cent of Americans supported a criminal case against Snowden. When asked about the US government's collection of phone and internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts, 48 per cent approved, compared with 47 per cent who disapproved. Such deep splits in public opinion often lead to inertia and support of the status quo.

And the more the US government comes across as being transparent, with open hearings and briefings about its surveillance programmes, the more the average American might feel less squeamish about personal data collection. For example, many Americans, after hearing that 50 terrorist plots were stymied, may conclude that collecting metadata is an acceptable price to pay, as most already feel the programmes have helped prevent terrorist attacks.

The revelations last week of specific National Security Agency rules on how to deal with "incidental" intercepts of Americans' phone calls or e-mails show that the bureaucracy is highly sensitive to the distinction between foreigners and "US persons". The two sets of rules, each nine pages long, could do much to correct the image of a rogue intelligence agency wantonly intruding on Americans' privacy.

Interestingly, foreign governments have been silent on the whole affair. This is because espionage and surveillance have been a reality for centuries. Remote-controlled spying is just its latest, unromantic version. In most countries, diplomats are trained from early on that they will be targets of spying. Big hi-tech companies teach the same. Countermeasures are simply part of the daily routine, and if there are slip-ups, well, catch me if you can.

Another reason the Snowden leaks are likely to change little is that America is already by far the world's most transparent nation on intelligence matters, and its spy services are the most closely and thoroughly overseen. The open congressional testimonies following the recent leaks are just one example of such regular hearings on a range of intelligence matters, although critics have called for even closer scrutiny.

The "annual threat assessment" that the director of national intelligence presents publicly to Congress is a virtual blueprint of US intelligence priorities and the main lines of US analytical thinking about threats. This year's report prominently featured cyberthreats. Few, if any, other legislatures get intelligence products approaching the scope of what US congressional oversight committees see.

A democracy's intelligence needs will always clash with its underlying values - that of an open, pluralistic and free society. Democracy depends on an informed citizenry. Effective intelligence depends on getting and protecting sensitive information. For the US and other modern democracies, getting that balance right remains a work in progress.

The big question is whether, in the meantime, we can all accept what Scott McNealy, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, famously said in 1999: "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it."

Martin Murphy is a former US diplomat. He was chief of the Economic-Political Section at the US Consulate in Hong Kong from 2009-12. He is currently studying at the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Centre

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hard times !
of course,the revelations of Snowden won't change the scale of the cybersurveillance of this Big Brother whose intelligence-complex now consists of thousands of government and private corporations and employ millions of Americans and aliens (the non-persons).How can anyone expect it to downsize the scale of such a vital organisation which cyber war is equal to a smokeless one !
yty07
I particularly like the last saying "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it." To God, everything is in the light.
Carioca no Coracao
of course, US will charge on....
1. this is Obama Time. during Bush Time, it was the liberals who stand up for liberty and against government surveillance, the spirit of Dr. MLK, Rosa Park. now we have a lefty black president in the house EXPANDING govt. surveillance beyond Bush Time. all the liberals now circle the wagon D up on Obama. anyone dare to attack Obama is criminal! Snowden is criminal. CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Fox News all parroting the same tune. bipartisan consensus achieved!!!! -:)
2. 100 yrs imperial history of hegemony, US has never cared about what american people think, after all they could be brainwashed and bought. as to world people? what world people???! just read your american history since its founding. war of 1812, then expanding its landmass "to the west". while along the way racial cleansing of indigenous american people (coming soon to your big screen: Lone Ranger). then annihilated the mexicans and took over half of their country and kept until today. onward to Pacific, eliminated the Hawaiian Kingdom, colonized Philippines and of course, Commodore Perry's "westernized" Japan to be militarized asian power (now Shinzo Abe is doing Part 2).....the american manifested destiny "my way or the high way". you can't disobey the law of history...
John Adams
Sad to say, I have to admit that Mr Murphy is most probably correct in his conclusions (even though I radically disagree with what those conclusions per se mean for us in HK and for China and the world , because I strongly support Snowden and what he did to expose US spying and hypocrisy).
I recently had a long conversation with an American colleague based in USA, whom I consider to be one of the most fair-minded , honest and open people I have ever known.
But even he felt that Snowden is a criminal and should be criminally apprehended, and that the CIA will eventually catch him by one means or another ("they'll get him in the end and I hope they do so sooner rather than later" )
This friend quoted his local newspaper to the effect that 65% of Americans feel the same way (not 54% as per the Pew Research Center)
The Snowden affair has really polarized the world in ways that can probably never be reversed.
It remains to be seen whether the polarization is for the better or the worse.
Carioca no Coracao
with all due respect John, this doesn't surprise me a bit about the attitude of americans toward Snowden. this is the same people who voted Obama, not once but 2x because they believe in his "HOPE" thing. whereas the econ is half dead, whereas money is printed at $85 billion a month, whereas one new scandal every month. you want democracy? this is democracy.
John Adams
Mr tjenzen,
Please let me clarify : I do NOT agree with my fair-minded colleague in USA . I think snowden is a true hero and I marched in support of him the other weekend.
I was just saying that I think it's a sad fact of life that the majority of Americans do seem to agree with my fair-minded colleague,
So I shudder to think what NON-fair-minded Americans think ! ... (Send Snowden to Git Bay for life I assume , branded as a terrorist )
Thus, even even sadder to say , I fear that what Mr Murphy wrote is very likely the truth .
Wodetiana
It seem to me that many USAians suffer from "Stockholm" syndrome. To quote Wiki definition "Stockholm syndrome, or capture–bonding, is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and sympathy and have positive feelings toward their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them."
But, having read a few different articles from USAian news, it seems many do support Ed Snowden, wish him luck and a peace prize.
hard times !
sorry to say,most Hong Kong people (as we address ourselves ):Hong Kong Chinese to be accurate,do not agree with your views and those of your fair-minded colleague working in America.So does my bro. but he has no comments or fear to have any maybe.Just a simple question for you: won't you like your personal data or private communciations through your e-mails or smart phones be monitored /recorded /bugged ? Of course not if you are sensible and right in mind. Right ? We, Hongkongers used to have close relationship with America ever since the Korean War (1950-53) and I grew up seeing US sailors strolling in Wanchai frequenting the girlie bars there.We grew up watching Hollywood films and enjoy patronizing the McDonald's.Most of us sympathized with your countrymen after the 9/11 terror attack in 2001 but not so in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.Yet this time your NSA's intrusions into our computers (even our students') were really too much ! We are rightfully to demand an acceptable explanation from your government ! P.S.This Snowden is a hero in most Hong Kong Chinese' eyes !
John Adams
Mr might is right
Please see my reply to Mr tjenzen above.
I support Snowden 100% and think he is a true hero.
I marched to support him with a whistle to blow outside the US consulate.
I only wish that Americans would see him as we see him.
Nonetheless, I fear very much that what Mr Murphy wrote is correct.
The USA does not give a damn what we in HK and China think ,so they will carry on doing the same spying same as before ( and I guess they are watching me now as I type this reply)
dng18dng18
Maybe the US should consider why they are cybersnooping so much...To prevent terrorism, ok sure, but why do countries want to bomb the US in the first place then? Probably because the US are committing acts of terror in the first place such as unmanned drones bombing civilians because of inaccurate intel in places such as Afghanistan.
The HK Govt did a commendable job by standing ground and by abiding by its own laws.

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