The Price is High for Total Transparency

Signals intelligence and other monitoring constitute a world of various shades of grey. It is equally futile to be entirely for or against it, as it is to be for or against taxation. Being resigned does not work, but one must always take a position based on objectives, scope and methodology. Saying yes to everything is as naive as rejecting everything.

One cannot escape the paradoxes. Nations are trying to work through diplomatic relations, international law and alliances with the like-minded, but they are simultaneously in a Hobbesian environment without independent justice and where self-interest weighs heavily. We have reason to be happy when FRA successfully monitors Russian traffic, because it improves our knowledge and security and strengthens our position with key partners. But that does not mean we rejoice over the corresponding Russian successes. On the contrary, it feels uncomfortable and annoying if we find out that they have managed to glean important information about our defences and civil protection. We do not measure morality with a yardstick – or attach to our own well being a special moral value – and in this context that is natural and wise.

It should be different with one’s allies, one might think. I imagine that the average citizen in a European NATO country would think that the U.S. intelligence agencies help with protection against monitoring from outside and leave our domestic traffic alone. However, this year, we have got confirmation that the reality remains more Hobbesian than what we wanted to believe, and that U.S. signals intelligence cheerfully collects material from both friendly as well as hostile countries and, yes, even from its own citizens. The appetite grows with the technological possibilities, and it is obviously very hard to refrain from doing what is possible to do. As the head of the National Security Agency (NSA), General Keith D. Alexander, was quoted in the Washington Post (15/10): ”One needs a haystack to find the needle”. The more data to look at, the better. If the security agencies themselves get to determine the rules, the principle of ”always more, never enough” is always close at hand.

How effective is mass surveillance? The attack against the Boston Marathon last spring gave many critics a field day. Meanwhile, the number of terrorist attacks –

on U.S. soil – has been reduced since the September 11 disaster of 2001, which the authorities gladly promote. But, when the NSA’s Deputy Director, James John?C. Inglis, last summer testified in the Senate, he had to admit that the vast storage of data about people’s telecommunications had played a crucial role in the fight against terror in only a single case, not in the dozen cases that other officials had spoken about.

Regardless of the effectiveness, most agree that there is a significant safety concern and a need to use signals intelligence to prevent terrorism and other serious crimes. But how strong is the realisation that there are also legitimate interests that speak against surveillance? Not as strong as one would like. I do not know if this is due to public credulity, lack of imagination, or scepticism against signals intelligence’s most inflated and conspiratorial critics, but it is striking how many people allow themselves to be satisfied with the lax argument that ”those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear”.

It is deeply unfortunate. Not that we should stop all surveillance and reconnaissance, but the monitoring interest must be balanced by a considered counterweight, so that we can get a reasonable balance between security and respect for individuals’ privacy.

Making society completely transparent is not without cost.

To begin with, there are practical problems and risks. Mass monitoring can easily lull us into a false sense of security. It can get rulers to believe that servers and cameras are sufficient and that one does not need a proper defence or police patrolling the city. It creates a threat when large amounts of sensitive data are collected. This may come as a shock to sensitive Swedish readers, but not even the state is infallible. When agencies collect large amounts of sensitive personal data, you have to expect leaks and the criminal sale of it, which can have serious consequences for individuals. Imagine thousands of journals freely available online, published by a county employee, who, for some reason, thinks he is doing humanity a service.

But it is about bigger things than that. It’s about people needing a protected space, where one is not observed and evaluated, where one feels free to try new ideas, build relationships and develop one’s personality so to become something more than a cog in the machine. The growth of human freedoms and rights occurred in close interaction with the emergence of private life and people’s sense of being unique individuals with personal integrity. And if we do not now need integrity, do we need the other rights? To just give up on the sanctity of privacy in the belief that it will save us from external threats is like burning our belongings to avoid being robbed.

PJ Anders Linder

VD och chefredaktör i Axess. 

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