• Mon
  • Dec 22, 2014
  • Updated: 10:28pm
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


Related topics

For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive



This article is now closed to comments

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 .
Absolutely, Hong Kong is now world-famous for it's new friends and allies in its quest of upholding "privacy and personal freedoms plus freedoms of expression and speech,not to say human rights protection" : China, Russia, Cuba and Ecuador - all beacons of modern and successful societies!
John Adams
Seems so.
I hope his studies here broaden his perspective
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)
If you got nothing to hide, why do you care? No one is sitting there reading all your messages. But, I am sure if you start sending messages to your buddies about blowing up IFC, then that will set-off the automated flags and alarm signals. Get over it bro! I got my first computer in 1982. Since then I have been educated as there always are reminders about data not being secure. These messages are everywhere. So if you want to talk about your wife to your friends, do it in private and not via whatsapp. After all, she just might be spying on you too!.........Godspeed Verax
hard times !
white terror is white terror and there is no so-called,'white terror ?' as the above silly thing claims ! Now the Big Brother--Uncle Sam is threatening any small nations not to accept their so-called fugitive leaker,Mr.Snowden and our people's hero might have to remain in Russia (maybe accused of being a Russian spy this time !) for a long time.Shame on this Obama administration who once yell,'Yes, we can !' but turns out to be,'Yes,we scan !' By the way,why don't you go home(Mainland) to brush up your English before coming back to this English newspaper's Comment column ? I wonder. Ha ! Ha !
hard times !
You are the geniune nerd indeed and nobody else but you only ! Go home and learn your English properly.We Hong Kong people don't use,' hey man' or such language that you used/uses ! Embrace your Uncle Sam who is just a hypocrite only.Can you point your finger at other writers here for when they post their remarks here ? Of course not ! KwunTongBypass has been made filthy by your words and insults here against anothe writer ! Shame on you by calling othesr '50 cent party member' ! which you have no proof at all ! Shame on you again. Why don't you wash up your dirty fingers after punching such nasty words onto your keyboard ?! Besides, even a local primary normal pupil won't mispell our airport's name wrongly.You're not one of us Hongikongers ! Go home and shut up !
Ulf Timmermann
So sprach ein Übermensch. Hand him over to the USA.
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.



SCMP.com Account