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.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Julian (Jul 05 2013, at 01:12)

The problem for those of us outside the US is that we all use US companies, such as Google, to manage our online lives. I have had a Gmail account for years and an archive of the 300k mails I have sent and received in that time. Google never told me when I signed up that the US authorities may access any of that data just by asking Google.

In the internet world we now live in, it is not good enough for US companies to shrug their shoulders and say the Constitution only applies to US citizens.

Conspiracy theorists might think there is a deliberate policy to encourage every non-US citizen to put their data in US so the US government can spy on it.


From: Gavin B (Jul 05 2013, at 02:57)

Tim wrote:

"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."

But not paranoid enough (apparently) that they knew the full extent before Snowden told them.

In any case Tim you're in good company: even Bruce S. is in playing down mode.


From: anonymous (Jul 05 2013, at 05:49)

"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 not be more specific, accurate and honest and say: Contemporary terrorism is by and large a radical-Islam-based activity?

It doesn't take an "atheist heart" to state a truth.

In this case, you trumpet yours and it produces a lesser truth.


From: jubal (Jul 05 2013, at 08:47)

@anonymous: the domestic U.S. terror is mostly of the weird-christian denomination.


From: Nate Abele (Jul 05 2013, at 08:56)

"Contemporary terrorism is by and large a faith-based activity."

There are nuances of truth here, but I would not consider this accurate as an unqualified statement. While religion certainly provides moral cover to inhuman behavior, history has shown that terrorist acts don't happen absent political motivators.

However, Islam is unique among world religions in that, in addition to being a religious faith, it is also a prescription for all aspects of government (including military), society, and personal life.

I highly recommend, which goes into these issues at length, and was written by a retired CIA officer with a 20-year career in the Middle East.


From: Mike Amundsen (Jul 05 2013, at 09:11)

If i understand your point

["], you think spying is good because it adds a level of transparency.

I would say that transparency is good. I am not sure the kind and depth of spying (both foreign and domestic) has that as it's aim or is very good at providing transparency.

IMO, spying is a closed-world model that is self-sustaining and degrades transparency (and freedom) over time. Like any sustaining system, changes come from outside distruptors (Ellsberg, Manning, and Snowden are the recent examples). I'd like to see ways to increase disruption of existing closed systems in a more stable/consistent way; something that doesn't allow corruptions to build up to such a high level (e.g. unregulated drone strikes aboard and unregulated secret searches at home) and doesn't exact such a high cost for the distruptors (extended detention for Manning, revoking citizenship for Snowden).


From: Stefan Tilkov (Jul 05 2013, at 13:58)

I'm German and always assumed the US spooks listened in to ordinary citizens. I'm quite a bit suprised to find out they've explicitly "targeted" our politicians. That seems like a very good reason to question a friendship.


From: Jon Levell (Jul 05 2013, at 13:59)

In my opinion, the problem is the asymmetry in government access.

I don't mistrust the American government more than any other, but when one government has more/easier access to data, it is tempting to use it to e.g. affect negotiations between governments.

I naively assumed with https everywhere, all government would be equally hardpushed to perform the mass surveillance in "covert" ways. (I do not follow the American legal system but assumed a court order would be required for the US government to have easy access to data on American servers, and it turns out I was wrong).

Will it encourage the use of non-US based cloud providers or motive people to create easier end-to-end encryption, I'm not sure. The cynic in me thinks we'll just get used to the idea that the US government reads data of hundreds of thousands of people and live with the data asymmetry.


From: Rob (Jul 06 2013, at 06:41)

Winston Smith was not only a dissident, he was also a spook, and not very competent in either capacity. The O'Brien's of the system are few and far between; mostly we are being watched by Smiths (and Mannings and Snowdens), not exactly a bunch of high wattage guys.

One could take comfort from this, except Kafka.


From: Daniel Haran (Jul 06 2013, at 09:56)

Actually, it seems most terrorist attacks in the US were not necessarily Muslim, or even religious:


From: Addicted (Jul 06 2013, at 17:44)

All those complaining about the whole "govt snooping into my affairs" are either wilfully ignorant, or hypocritical.

While there are legitimate complaints to be made about the level of oversight on the US spying programs, I can't believe that people thought their communications were not being spied upon.

They do remember that pretty much every country wanted to ban Blackberry from their countries until they promised to stop encrypting their server communications right? Why do people think these countries wanted to do that?


From: John Cowan (Jul 06 2013, at 20:01)

I would say that <i>every</i> religion, without exception, is "a prescription for all aspects of government (including military), society, and personal life". It's just that most people who practice Christianity nowadays don't pay attention to all that -- but no more do most people (there are over a billion of them, after all) who practice Islam. Religion, after all, begins as just another label for culture: it only became detached from the total culture when people began to see it as portable from one culture to another. Even now, there are very few Hindus who aren't South Asians culturally speaking, hardly any religious Jews who aren't culturally Jewish, and so on.


From: Bud Ryerson (Jul 06 2013, at 22:53)

"If they know something you don't know;

and you know that they know; and they know that you know that they know... well, then you've lost."


From: Matěj Cepl (Jul 08 2013, at 05:53)

@John Cowan ... completely agree, if you include atheism among other religions where it belongs (see the current development in the European Union with the fundamentalist atheism getting to the helm).


From: Jon Levell (Jul 08 2013, at 13:40)

@addicted The countries threatening to ban Blackberry were complaining about on the wire encryption.

Listening to unencrypted data as it flows across the network is one thing. People talk about things like https everywhere to counteract that which requires little technical aptitude on the user's part.

Government(s) having access to the post-decrypted data stored on the server is harder for regular users to counteract. It requires end-to-end encryption (which currently tends to be hard to use correctly) or servers based on a country where the laws have more concern for the users privacy.

(As I understand it, US law has much more concern for an American's privacy that it does for mine (a European) but like many Europeans I current store a lot of data in the US).


From: Nik Clayton (Jul 11 2013, at 08:37)

Tim, when you say:

"And while the risk of a sudden lurch into tyranny seems remote in the civilized nations of the developed world,"

what do you think the first signs of that "lurch to tyranny" would look like?


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