The costs of surveillance

The saga of Edward Snowden, trapped in an airport lounge while trying to escape the long hand of an aggrieved superpower, has obscured the enormity of his disclosures. Among other things, the documents leaked by the former National Security Agency staffer indicate that the European Union embassy in Washington DC was being bugged by the NSA, as were those of such US allies as France, Greece, Italy, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, India and Turkey.

The fallout from Snowden’s disclosures has exposed the American establishment’s reluctance to see itself as an intrusive surveillance state. Countries with a living memory of mass surveillance have shown a much better grasp of what is at stake. Following reports in the German magazine Der Spiegel that the NSA had bugged a key EU building in Brussels, Germany’s justice minister said this was “reminiscent of the actions of enemies during the Cold War.” A spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel later also picked up the Cold War theme, adding that “mutual trust is necessary to come to an agreement [on upcoming trade talks].”

Largely due to its complicity in the PRISM surveillance programme, the UK has done its best to stall further debate by claiming that the EU lacks authority to deal with the relevant national security and intelligence issues. The tactic, while successful, has shown up serious divisions as to how to coordinate an EU response to the current scandal. One immediate consequence is likely to be the termination of contracts between American Internet providers and EU businesses. The vice president of the European Commission has already warned that EU businesses are unlikely to store data with US ‘cloud services’ providers if they “suspect or know” the information is being shared against their wishes. She warned of “multibillion euro consequences for American companies” if the problem was not addressed satisfactorily.

Larger consequences loom. Up to now the US has tried to make light of Europe’s outrage. President Obama called the surveillance “typical” and said it was nothing more than America’s attempt to “understand the world better.” US Secretary of State Kerry said every country with a stake in international affairs “undertake[s] lots of activities to protect its national security.” Both remarks are surprisingly dismissive. Three days ago the European Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling on the US to publish all the details of its electronic surveillance, and indicated that failure to do so might result in the disruption of current EU-US information sharing arrangements. But beyond this rather tepid reaction, public outrage at the separate surveillance scandals currently unfolding in EU could easily undermine US and EU negotiations to create the largest free-trade area in the world.

Whatever else they have done, Snowden’s leaks have brought into focus the ease, efficiency and relative cheapness of modern surveillances. As one prominent privacy expert has noted “spying no longer requires following people and planting bugs, but rather filling out forms to demand access to an existing trove of information. The NSA doesn’t bear the cost of collecting and storing data and they no longer have to directly interact with their targets.” The anti-surveillance Fourth of July protests which took place in as many as 100 American cities nicely caught this Orwellian development with the slogan “Restore the Fourth [Amendment — the US constitutional protection against ‘unreasonable searches and seizures’].”

Before the September 11 attacks the surveillance state was usually a standard feature of fictional communist dystopias. After Wikileaks and the current NSA disclosures it is clear that any government can be seduced by the hitherto unimagined powers of electronic espionage. This temptation was presciently noticed by Alexander Hamilton, who warned in the Federalist Papers (No 8, published in November 1787) that: “Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates. The violent destruction of life and property incident to war, the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights.”

Hamilton’s remarkable analysis ends with a particularly rousing sentence, one that could serve as an epitaph for every national security scandal from the Pentagon Papers through to the PRISM programme: “To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free.”

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