Gauging the Foreign and Domestic Impacts of Snowden’s Revelations

Tyler Owens, a second-year MA student at SAIS, discusses the effects of the NSA spying scandal on data security and international public opinion.

By Tyler Owens

Any student of international politics knows that intelligence services operate in black holes, largely removed from international law. It should come as no surprise that intelligence services spy not only on foreign governments, but on their own domestic constituencies as well. They will do whatever they can—within certain moral and ethical constraints—to promote national security, economic advantage, or whatever other interest is at stake. This is the game of espionage, and all nations understand it. Countries with the resources to play do so, and countries without the resources watch from the sidelines.

Despite this, revelations of National Security Agency (NSA) spying activity leaked by Edward Snowden have infuriated foreign governments and populaces, and harmed the profits and market share of American-owned global technology companies. Leaked documents reveal that the NSA—whether through collaboration, coercion, or stealth—has, in recent years, succeeded in introducing ‘backdoors’ into the security products, hardware, and networks of top U.S. technology companies. Such backdoors give the NSA the ability to monitor digital communications and activity, and to defeat common encryption standards.

The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, which has seen some of the documents leaked by Snowden, reported that the NSA cracked encryption codes to tap into sensitive data on Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android operating system. In late October of this year, Der Spiegel informed German officials that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s private cellphone was among the phones that the NSA succeeded in tapping. Following this revelation, the U.S. national security adviser, Susan Rice, received an angry call from her German counterpart, who demanded fundamental changes to U.S. behavior. The German government is also now pushing back against American companies. Merkel called for stricter data protection rules to force companies such as Facebook and Google to communicate how they manage personal information. Many German citizens have reacted to the scandal by switching to German email providers and demanding strong data encryption.

In Brazil, where the NSA has reportedly intercepted communications of President Dilma Rouseff, as well as those of the state-owned oil company (Petroleo Brasileiro SA), local internet services firms such as Padtec SA and Datacom are capturing market share from the American-owned companies in the Brazilian market, CISCO Systems and Juniper Networks. Rouseff responded to the allegations against the NSA by postponing a state visit to Washington.

A recent report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation states that “the U.S. cloud computing industry stands to lose $22 to $35 billion over the next three years as a result of the recent revelations about the NSA’s electronic surveillance programs.” The author of the report, Daniel Castro, said that “customers buy products and services based on a company’s reputation, and the NSA has single-handedly tarnished the reputation of the entire U.S. tech industry. I suspect many foreign customers are going to be shopping elsewhere for their hardware and software.”

European backlash against U.S. surveillance programs may lead to profound changes in how the American intelligence community works. The chief executive of Deutsche Telekom, a major German telecommunications firm, recently said that his company is working to prevent electronic communications from unnecessarily crossing the Atlantic, thus denying the NSA access to their content. Other German public figures have talked of segmenting the internet and boycotting major American technology firms, in an effort to maintain the confidentiality of personal communications and commercial transactions. In response to the backlash, General Keith Alexander, the director of the NSA, asked, “[w]hat’s more important? Partnering with countries may be more important than collecting on them.” This response marks the first indication that the U.S. national security establishment is now reconsidering its fundamental assumptions on the value of digital espionage.

While European outrage may prompt fundamental policy changes in the NSA’s foreign collection activity, it seems that in the United States, just how much—or how little—impact Snowden’s disclosures will have is already settled. While the leaks have unleashed a public debate over the extent, legality, and necessity of U.S. information collection programs, the American public has shown itself to be largely apathetic and even supportive of the government’s intentions. A small number of Americans are publicly outraged by what is seen as a federal government without constraints, able to sidestep the Constitution and any ethical boundary in the pursuit of elusive ironclad security; the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed Constitutional challenges to the NSA programs divulged by Snowden.

Most of American society, however, has reacted much more calmly. A Washington Post/Pew Research poll from June 2013 found that 56 percent of Americans find the NSA’s tracking of domestic telephone activity in an effort to prevent terrorism “acceptable.” When the poll question was worded slightly differently, 62 percent of Americans believed it is “more important for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy.” This is even after twelve years without a domestic terror attack.

The American public now knows that with each call made on a smartphone, the U.S. government can determine the length of the call, who was called, and from where the call was made. With a special warrant, the government can also access the content of the conversation. The government has similar capabilities with regards to internet communications and activity. But by and large, Americans have made no effort to stop using their smartphones, reject American email providers, or employ information encryption strategies.

The history of national security in the United States has largely been a process of Americans becoming more comfortable divulging more and more personal information. This history began with J. Edgar Hoover’s quest to archive the fingerprints of all Americans in the 1930s, and continues with today’s efforts to record massive amounts of internet activity and smartphone data. Between the 1930s and today, Americans’ resistance to such measures has diminished under the banner of protecting national security.

For Americans (and foreigners) who actually care what information the U.S. government collects and what it may or may not do with that information, protecting personal communications may become a mainstay of daily living. Just as people protect their homes from intruders and their bodies from disease, so too may they adapt to protecting their telephone calls and emails from the eyes and ears of the U.S. government. For those who are concerned, encryption software and strategies are commercially available.

Towards the end of Edward Snowden’s first video interview with The Guardian, he said, “The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change. … [The American people] won’t be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things.” Most Americans, rather than showing an unwillingness to fight for change, have shown that they support the efforts of a well-meaning, if overzealous, government whose primary objective is to protect them. Edward Snowden—for all his talk of being a martyr who exposes a U.S. government run amok with such power that the very foundations of our democracy are threatened—may have succeeded in revealing what nations have long known and what Americans could probably see coming:  that if one wants true privacy, one will have to remove oneself entirely from the information age.

The SAIS Review
The SAIS Review