October 24, 2013
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch) German Chancellor Angela Merkel (Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch)

Big, scandalous news on the surveillance front: documents from Edward Snowden’s trove apparently show that the NSA has been monitoring Angela Merkel’s personal cell phone. This comes on the heels of news two days ago that they were similarly spying on French President Francois Hollande. While it may be the case that this is business as usual on the spying front, these revelations raise the question of whether dragnet surveillance of everyone and everything is more trouble than it’s worth.

Merkel was not happy about this news:

Ms. Merkel herself angrily demanded assurances from President Obama that her cellphone was not the target of an American intelligence tap as soon as suspicions surfaced on Wednesday. Washington hastily pledged that her calls were not being monitored and would not be in future but conspicuously said nothing about the past.

Now, on a personal level I’m revolted by the very concept of dragnet surveillance. Though it’s only the spying on American citizens which seems blatantly illegal, I believe foreigners deserve an expectation of privacy unless there is a good reason to spy on them. It was wrong when George Bush did it and it’s wrong when President Obama does it. And just what possible benefit there could be for spying on the top leadership of our closest allies?

What I always hear at this point is that of course we’re spying on our closest friends. That’s always been the case, and you’re a naive chump if you think foreign diplomats or presidents should deserve or expect privacy. Everyone is spying on everyone else, all the time. Historically speaking, this has often been the case, and neither the French nor the Germans probably have clean hands with respect to their own spying agencies (though the Germans have a much more serious attitude toward surveillance, for obvious reasons).

But I think we need to reconsider what technological improvements have enabled here. It is true that spying agencies throughout history have usually collected as much information as they can, even about their ostensible allies. But now the NSA has the capability to actually try to collect all communication, everywhere (and after this umpteenth Snowden revelation, I believe that’s a reasonable approximation). To accomplish this, the government has had to expand the surveillance apparatus to enormous size — over 4 million people have security clearances. And for what? As Julian Sanchez ably demonstrates, the government’s attempts to provide evidence of mass surveillance programs foiling terrorists plots have been laughable.

The ironic thing is that this bloated system is quite fragile — four million people is an awful lot of potential leakers, and when the everyday operations of the surveillance state are hugely controversial and offensive, one single leak can do tremendous damage to the system. Whatever you feel about Edward Snowden, he’s unquestionably demonstrated this fact. A much smaller, more streamlined system which had some buy-in from the American public and the world would not only be less invasive, but would be less vulnerable to pinhole leaks which reveal the truth to the world.

Continue reading