There are angry voices sounding in Europe over the NSA’s large-scale indiscriminate information-gathering there. It’s perfectly possible to be suspicious and cynical about the US spooks, a fan of Ed Snowden, and still think those voices are those of either Euro-hypocrites or Euro-fools.
In general, I approve of espionage and yet intensely distrust law-enforcement organizations. I think a healthy civic society should:
Aggressively regulate its own security establishment.
Worry intensely about overreach and privacy abuse by security officials.
Empower those officials to watch its enemies closely and its allies even more closely.
Assume that foreign security establishments will routinely try to capture every word spoken and every picture taken.
Where there are useful measures that can be taken to protect citizens’ privacy from foreign snoops, take them.
Why Spying Is Good · Governments are less likely to do risky things that might have the side-effect of starting wars when they know that other governments know what they’re up to. It’s as simple as that.
And as long as religious leaders are out there teaching the clueless that God wants them to kill, I want spooks trying to head them off. Yes, I’m wearing my atheist heart on my sleeve here, but face facts: Contemporary terrorism is by and large a faith-based activity.
Why Distrust and Regulate Spooks? · Because every law-enforcement organization in history has had an us-against-them psychology. And every one has also had a statistically-unsurprising number of members who are corrupt, paranoid, or just stupid, and will abuse their access to privileged information.
And while the risk of a sudden lurch into tyranny seems remote in the civilized nations of the developed world, a good way to keep that risk low is to keep your security professionals on a damn short leash.
The notion that you need a search warrant to break down doors or tap phones or unlock emails is absolutely a central keystone of civilized life. Anything that weakens it is terribly dangerous.
I’m confident that Ed Snowden has done the world in general and America in particular a favor, by forcing into the public conversation what most “insiders” already knew. Among other things, my impression is that the spook organizations are ludicrously inefficient and wasteful. Whether or not it’s a good thing for them to be capturing all that information, it’s pretty likely that whatever the benefits are, they’re not worth what we’re paying. Let’s talk about that.
What would be even more valuable to the public discourse would be some public-finance insider opening the kimono on how much we’re actually paying for whatever it is that funding the spooks is buying us.
Home Spooks Vs Foreign Spooks · Assuming you’re not actually planning to bomb a legislature, it seems obvious that your own government’s spies are way more dangerous to you than are foreigners. Your own can put you on a no-fly list or hand you to a foreign government to torture or quietly advise a funding agency that your research proposals shouldn’t get a warm welcome or arrange that you go to secondary inspection every time you re-enter your homeland.
And they can do any of these things because they’re paranoid or corrupt or just stupid. Which some proportion of them will always be.
Foreign intelligence pros are simply not apt to care that much about what you do unless there are good reasons to think you’re a threat to them.
So You Like Being Watched? · Uh, no. I think it’s entirely sane to be paranoid, in a balanced way. Use HTTPS everywhere. Don’t share your location freely, trade it for things you need. Bear in mind that your telephone company always knows where you are, and has no business reason not to tell anyone in a uniform, if asked. And that your email provider, presented with a proper warrant, will efficiently cough up yours, including those you thought you’d deleted. And that anything going any distance over the public telephone network is probably being tapped by at least one government. And that Internet-voice and Internet-video operators may not even ask for a warrant before they spill your beans.
There are lots of perfectly-legal reasons to want privacy. If you act all the time in a way that sensibly preserves yours, when one of those legal reasons becomes important you suddenly won’t be acting different in an attention-catching way.
Antispooking · I’m not so idealistic as to think that the Canadian government has any interest in defending my privacy from the NSA; it’s actually more likely that they’re cheerfully handing anything they know over on request. But if there’s anything that a developed-world state could do to defend its citizens’ privacy from barbarians equipped with listening technology, I hope they are.
The Euro Angle · So, the Germans are upset that the Yanks are listening in to whatever they can? Given that 9/11 was planned in Frankfurt, they can’t plausibly claim to be surprised. So like the title says, I’m thinking hypocrisy or foolishness.
And since Germans in particular regulate their own security establishment with what looks to me like an eminently intelligent and sanely-paranoid framework, let’s rule out foolishness.