Germany has become the latest country to become embroiled in a spying scandal, putting severe pressure on the usually unflappable Chancellor Angela Merkel. Having complained loudly about the National Security Agency (NSA) spying on Germany, Merkel is now being made to look like a hypocrite with the revelations that the BND – the German foreign intelligence agency – has been involved in illegal surveillance of both industrial and political entities in Europe.
Espionage is, of course, as old as history itself. Sun-Tzu, probably the foremost military strategist of the ancient world, was a keen advocate of the use of spying. Why waste thousands of men and countless riches by sending vast unprepared armies against your enemy, when you can deploy spies to ascertain their strengths and weaknesses? Indeed, Sun-Tzu identified five types of spies:
1) Local spies – ordinary civilians inhabiting enemy territory
2) Inward spies – officials of the enemy
3) Converted spies – turning the enemy’s spies
4) Doomed spies – decoys creating open deception to mislead the enemy
5) Surviving spies – those that infiltrate the enemy camp and return
All of these methods are still employed in some form or another, although technological advancement means that the sophistication of electronic espionage is becoming increasingly difficult to counter. More worryingly for some people is that such methods are being used by countries to spy on their own citizens.
The Edward Snowden leaks caused a great furore in the USA and have subsequently done so in other countries by revealing the extent to which governments monitor every aspect of the their citizens’ lives for purported reasons of national security.
Again, spying on one’s own people is not a new phenomenon. It has been happening at the local level for centuries. The church played a key role in developing networks of informants in Europe during the Middle Ages, reporting on the political and religious persuasions of their citizens. Spy rings have been used by governments for a plethora of reasons, whether it is to identify criminal activity, ascertain the wealth of the population for tax purposes or to root out critics and potential opponents. Often it is not the act of spying itself that causes moral outrage but the use of the information obtained from espionage.
What did the NSA do with all the data it collected on individuals with no recognisable link to terrorism or any other crime? What of the ‘commercial secrets’ it unravelled? The answer to these questions revolves heavily around the individuals with access to the data. Who are they? What are their personal motives? How can they gain? These questions have not changed over the years.
When our privacy is breached we want to hold someone accountable. As ordinary citizens we are not the enemy, people who our governments can mistrust and collect dossiers on. This no ordinary spying as Sun-Tzu saw it. The lack of transparency in the data collecting process of our government security agencies is what is most troubling. For the majority of people, who have absolutely nothing to hide, the thought that people are listening in on their conversations is not inherently problematic. After all, if such methods can prevent a terrorist attack then surely they are worth it?
What is done with the non-pertinent information – which may hold secrets of a totally different kind – is what disturbs us. If our government agencies collect and retain this information then what is stopping our ‘enemies’ from gaining access to such data through cyberattacks?
Collecting a vast array of data of our own citizens is an evolution in the history of espionage. Whilst designed to enhance our national security, the reverse could occur if our governments do not ensure the careful storage of relevant acquired data, and the destruction of anything left behind.