Edward Snowden

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