Edward Snowden art image by Abode of Chaos on flickr.

The age of espionage

19 November 2013

We live in an age of espionage, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, writes Michael Wesley.

The Snowden leaks have now embroiled the Australian government in spying scandals with Indonesia and East Timor, similar to those between the US and its European allies. The latest revelations show the spying went all the way to the top, with Australia’s intelligence attempting to listen in on Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s telephone conversations. But let’s get real: we live in an age of surveillance - and we’re better off for it.

Before we all abandon ourselves to outrage over American and Australian eavesdropping on friendly countries, we need to take a collective deep breath. The recent expressions of anger from foreign governments, whether German, French, Spanish or Indonesian, is confected. They have long known that Washington and Canberra have been eavesdropping on their territory. How do they know? Because Washington shares much of what it collects with Berlin, Paris, Madrid, as does Canberra with Jakarta. So spare us the fulminations about UN resolutions and threats of reduced cooperation.

Beyond this, we all need to acknowledge that spying makes the world a safer, more stable place. Take away intelligence gathering, and the risks of misunderstanding, paranoia and sheer miscalculation rise rapidly - and so consequently do the risks of conflict. From the start of the Cold War, the US needed to collect intelligence on its European and Asian allies for one very good reason - it had just signed security alliances with them at the dawn of the nuclear age. Washington had to be sure that its allies in Europe would not drag it into a conflict it did not want, and in which it could soon find itself on the brink of a nuclear exchange.

Australia and Indonesia are not allies, but it still makes a lot of sense for them to spy on each other. The two things governments worry most about are their neighbours’ capabilities and intentions: is there a secret arms build-up occurring, and is it accompanied by an intention to attack? History is replete with wars caused by poor information and paranoia among neighbours. Effective eavesdropping tells states about each other’s capabilities and intentions. Not only do Australia’s intelligence agencies spy on their neighbours, they also engage in regular talks - called “intelligence exchanges” - with agencies from the other side. The result? A no-surprises world in which the dangers of miscalculation are vastly reduced.

Furthermore, countries that know everyone’s watching them have less incentive to try anything on. On many occasions, US diplomats have shown intelligence to foreign governments as a way of saying, “we know what you’re doing, and if you keep doing it, we’re going to do something serious about it.” There are few more effective warnings in world affairs.

To the extent that there is genuine shock and anger in the German, French, Spanish or Indonesian governments, it seems to arise from disappointment that the US and its closest allies do not trust them. If this is the case, they need to snap out of it, because trust is a dangerous attitude in international affairs. Or to be more specific, naive trust is. To blithely trust another country’s good nature is to invite them to exploit one’s naivety.

There is only one genuine source of trust in our world, and that is intelligence. That is why each of the current aggrieved parties spends billions spying on other countries. It is only when one genuinely knows the intentions and capabilities of others that one can genuinely trust that they aren’t up to no good. And it is only when they are similarly informed about us that they can properly trust us.

The good news is that other countries are benefiting from the American-Australian-British-Canadian lead in global eavesdropping. They are becoming wealthier, and intelligence-gathering technologies cheaper and more powerful. Information gathering has become pervasive - and not just among governments. Private companies now rival governments in the effectiveness of data collection and crunching. Individuals can also now watch what governments and businesses are doing much more effectively. This is the world we live in. It cannot be unwound or legislated away by statute, treaty or UN resolution. A world in which everyone watches everyone else is a world of fewer surprises, where exploitation and predation are harder to perpetrate and get away with.

It is not a world without privacy or secrets. These can and must exist - they are part of society. Omni-surveillance means individuals, companies and states must be more careful with their information. They must decide what is important, and secret, and protect it. Angela Merkel’s mobile phone should have been encrypted. One hopes Yudhoyono’s is. You can be certain Barack Obama’s and Tony Abbott’s are.

We live in an age of espionage. It is also a world in which wars between countries have become very rare. That is no coincidence.

This piece was originally published in the Canberra Times: http://www.canberratimes.com.au/comment/spying-scandal–a-little-snoopi...

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