Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Spies Like Us

Something has been bugging me about the Edward Snowden case. I'm struggling to find the best words to describe it, but essentially it has to do with our paradoxical justifications of something we feel it's wrong for everyone except us to do. I'm thinking particularly of Snowden's revelations on how the US has been spying on other countries, more than how the US has been spying domestically. Ironically, this international revelation is the one that's causing Snowden's initial fans to pull back from supporting him now.

Now, no one loves an international spy thriller more than I do. I've watched the Jason Bourne films (mostly on airplanes) probably a total of 30 times, and will most likely watch them again. They're the ultimate, nearly mindless escape...superhuman powers (both physical and mental), exotic locations, daring escapes, extralegal shenanigans, and always some love interest. What's not to like? But I'm always aware when I'm enjoying a spy thriller that it's all just a game. And I don't just mean the Hollywood treatment of the subject, but the actual, real world spying. It's a game.

Not that spying doesn't entail real risk, mind you. Discovered spies are imprisoned or executed, and most nation's spy recruiting methods are so crude that often innocents get hurt. Spy agencies prey on people at their most vulnerable moments to turn them.

But spying is still a game in that nations pretend they're not doing it. It's a game in that nations act outraged when they catch someone else doing it. It's a game in that we actually defend our right to pretend we're not doing it. 

Which brings me back to the ironic response to Snowden's revelations. From The New York Times:

In the last few days, however, Mr. Snowden’s leaks have taken a questionable turn. He told the South China Morning Post that the United States had hacked into many Chinese computer systems, including those at universities and businesses. And yesterday he showed documents to the Guardian revealing that the N.S.A. and its British counterpart had spied on politicians from around the world who attended the 2009 G-20 summit in London.

These documents are of a different and more dubious order than the first ones. Like all leaks, their benefits have to be weighed against their potential harm, and in this case, it’s difficult to see what the benefits are. The N.S.A. was created to spy on overseas communications, and there is no serious debate about whether it should be doing so. Revealing that it was monitoring the computer traffic of foreign countries, and listening to their leaders, sheds no particularly useful light on the N.S.A.’s mission, or what most people believed its activities to be. [...]
In an online chat today with readers of the Guardian, Mr. Snowden expressed outrage that the United States would hack into civilian computers overseas, which he called “nakedly, aggressively criminal acts.” And he came up with an odd formulation for what the N.S.A. should and shouldn’t be doing overseas:

“Congress hasn’t declared war on the countries,” he wrote. “The majority of them are our allies, but without asking for public permission, N.S.A. is running network operations against them that affect millions of innocent people.”

So apparently he believes that the United States shouldn’t engage in spying except for countries with which it is at war. Of course, we’re not at war with any countries right now, only with Al Qaeda and its allies, so that would mean shutting down all non-terror spying activities. The idea that we should unilaterally discard a practice — however distasteful — used for centuries by virtually every country that can afford a spy service is naïve. Every industrialized country spies on every other, in part to learn just how much they are being spied on. What exactly was it he believed the intelligence world did when he first started making money by working for it?
I'm curious though if we might not be witnessing, through Snowden's eventual keen distaste for spying, an example of a sociological development I've been on the lookout for for quite some time. Let's call it a saturation point for enlightened false consciousness. Sloterdijk didn't believe it would ever come, but I always intuitively felt he had over-estimated human's capacity for swallowing bullshit. In Snowden's case, that saturation point may have been reached via the absurdity, in this digital age when information is so readily available and useable, of still pretending we're not spying on everyone everywhere all the time even though we argue they should all know we're spying on them everywhere all the time. 

Indeed, if, as the NYTimes suggests," Revealing that [NSA] was monitoring the computer traffic of foreign countries, and listening to their leaders, sheds no particularly useful light on the N.S.A.’s mission, or what most people believed its activities to be," then it can be argued that it actually does no harm either, no? 

Yeah, Yeah, I know, specifics are the supposed damage here, because they can be used by those we're spying on to plug holes and restructure their security measures, making the spying we're doing but not admitting to all the more difficult. 

But in general, if we know NSA is spying...then how is saying "NSA is spying" a problem? Moreover, if we're spying on countries who are not technically our "enemies," and obviously even some of our allies, we're sending so many mixed signals about collaboration and mutual trust, that the whole thing requires so much cognitive dissonance that eventually someone very close to it all was bound to say "enough!" Calling spying "distasteful" is not nearly accurate enough to account for how insane the whole game truly is. It makes for great movies, but it's not at all helpful in maintaining any degree of interpersonal or intellectual integrity. Perhaps we're reaching a post-Sloterdijk hunger for such things again.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love Whistleblowers, have since Daniel Ellsberg so I have no problems with Snowden. I don't like names of people undercover being revealed putting their lives in danger but other than that, like as much transparency as I can get and when we don't really have it, some of it gets leaked.

6/19/2013 12:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And now Robert Mueller acknowledges that drones are used within the US. Pretty.

6/19/2013 02:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

*waves* at the nsa man.

6/19/2013 06:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Michael Winkler said...

I think it all relates to a culture of dishonesty where the means is always justified if it's self-serving. We're willing to pay the price for championing morality as long as the cost doesn't impact our own pocketbook, sense of security, or notion of entitlement.

6/20/2013 01:20:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just because you are allies with someone doesn't mean that you are allies with all of their allies. Perhaps this is the reason or purpose for spying on ones allies, perhaps it's to gather data or information that you feel is pertinent but they may not want to release to you for a myriad of reasons. What's rational for you may seem irrational to your ally and vice versa. There may also be asymmetric properties that would make total data sharing disproportionately unfair.

It's game theory at it's finest.

The notion does seem strange though to 'spy' on everyone all the time. I would guess that the number of people that actually have knowledge, secrets, or useful data, or ongoing illegal activities are such a small part of the population that sifting through everyone is mostly an exercise. It also seems like if you are one of those people that would be flagged, watched, bi&trisected behind the glows of a thousand monitors into the night YOU WOULD KNOW IT or at least know there is likelihood someone would be trying to 'tap into' your life. After all if you are a nuclear scientist in Iran, you've got to be aware of the risks associated with the job, same goes for Al Queda recruits.

I'm most surprised at the complicity of private enterprises to furnish information to the gov. or provide backdoor gathering methods. But I don't think it will effect my life any differently. And that makes me feel bad for Edward Snowden. The message should have Americans riled up because of the violation of liberties, but lets face it - a happy meal and rapid fire news hour later and we're done.

6/21/2013 03:52:00 PM  
Blogger Tyree Callahan said...

I should give up painting and start breeding carrier pigeons.

6/22/2013 12:50:00 AM  

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