Spy world: The cost of digging too deep

Spying has a long a colorful history. It has been amped up to extraordinary levels today by the National Security Agency and other super-secret operations. But there's a price for all that capability.

Pawel Kopczynski/Reuters
A cassette-tape recorder used for surveillance is displayed at the stasi (secret police) museum in Berlin.

Paradox alert. Half the world is outraged that the United States and other governments are conducting massive eavesdropping that intrudes on the private lives of hundreds of millions of people. The other half of the world, meanwhile, is blithely posting intimate details of their private lives on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Half the world prizes privacy as a human right. Half thinks privacy is a quaint notion that cannot compare with the broadcasting of thoughtlets, however profound or inane.

The key, of course, is volition. It’s a choice, if not a particularly smart one, to post embarrassing party pictures for all the world to see or to ventilate about religion, ideology, sports events, or celebrity misbehavior. Government spying, which is the subject of this week’s cover story, doesn’t let you choose. It works only if you don’t know you are being monitored.

Information is power. Most bosses have more information than their employees, which gives them more power. Some corporate insiders are tempted to seek illegal gains with information the public doesn’t have. Governments naturally want to know what terrorists are plotting or rival governments are thinking. 

This is where you would expect to be reminded that spying has always been with us. Moses sent spies into Canaan. Egypt, Greece, Rome – every world power, and even small, friendly ones, use covert means to protect their interests. But if spying is as old as the hills, there is a big difference in its 21st-century practice.

The difference is speed and scope. More than half a million server farms dot the planet. These process everything from innocuous tweets to travel bookings, love letters to business intelligence. That’s what the National Security Agency and its counterparts have been tapping into, crunching, and analyzing. 

Laws and common sense have tried to put boundaries around this new capability, but a “why not” mentality seems to have taken hold in the intelligence world. This has led to spying on friend and foe alike – the German chancellor, the Mexican president, and millions of innocent people whose data is caught in the dragnet. While the question of legality has to be weighed against the need to protect national security, a more important question must be asked by spymasters and politicians: Is all this spying wise?

As Howard LaFranchi’s report notes (click here), now that Edward Snowden has exposed details of the spying operations, the credibility of American companies such as Google and Verizon has been damaged. Even worse may be the damage to international goodwill – the admiration people around the world have had for the US as an open and free society. And freedom lost in the quest for security would be the biggest loss of all.

William Webster, who has served as head of the CIA and FBI and as a federal judge, says it is crucial to have clear-cut process govern this sort of intelligence gathering. As CIA director, he said in a recent phone conversation, he would always ask two questions before a covert action was approved: “Is it consistent with overt US foreign policy? And when it becomes public, as it probably will, will this make sense to the American people?”

“It all comes down to one thing,” he added. “Trust.” 

 John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at editor@csmonitor.com.

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