What is the true mission of the NSA in a free society?

Friday, 3 January 2014 - 8:12am IST | Agency: DNA

In the name of counter-terrorism our phone and Internet communications are today under continual government surveillance. Should we worry about the US National Security Agency and Britain’s GCHQ? Yes: Ordinary people have a right to privacy and few means to resist covert surveillance. The privacy of hundreds of millions of people is at risk. Against that, a relatively small number of ordinary people have secret plans that threaten our security. Compared to the threat, the indiscriminate character of surveillance seems disproportionate.

But the critics of surveillance also need a sense of proportion. Many commentators have suggested that more than privacy is at stake. Our liberty is also at risk, they fear: perhaps we are moving towards a police state. Really? A standard of comparison is needed, one that would be best provided by the historical records of a real totalitarian police state.

The Soviet Union was such a police state. In the Soviet Union under Communist rule, the secret police was the KGB (Committee on State Security). Most KGB records remain under lock and key, because Russia today is governed by an ex-KGB elite that has no interest in letting the world see how the KGB upheld Communist rule. A few of the former Soviet states have made a clean break with the Communist past and have opened up their KGB archives. For the last five years I have been working with records from now-independent Lithuania — held on microfilm at the Hoover Institution in California. These are highly revealing about KGB methods of mass surveillance and intervention.

Soviet society was organized to make surveillance easy. Every citizen had an ID card; everyone’s residence was registered with the police. At work, everyone was employed by the State or by government-controlled “collectives”. At home, everyone was a tenant of the government or some collective. The government and the ruling party ran the press and TV; there were no independent media, no independent access to copying or print services, and absolutely no Facebook or Twitter.

With one State postal and telephone service, any letter or call could be intercepted. The KGB ran a network of informers, which was concentrated on key offices, factories, and colleges where young people gathered. The extent of secrecy and surveillance was never debated in any public forum.

No one could leave the country without permission, and the small numbers allowed in and out were basically limited by the KGB’s capacity to watch them individually or in groups. In the 1970s, for example, Soviet Lithuania sent at least 1,000 visitors abroad each year and received at least 10,000 visitors. Forty years later, freed from Communist rule Lithuania would receive more than one million visitors each year just from the European Union.

By the standards of a middle-income country today, Soviet citizens were almost unbelievably isolated. Just as important, the cause of their isolation was the Communist regime’s resolve to keep the citizens under continual observation. The first lesson seems to be that a police state will restrict citizens’ travel and communication to a level that it can observe. As humans we love to move around and be in constant touch with each other through social media. In open societies our intelligence agencies respond to this challenge by gathering our data indiscriminately and hoarding it in vast quantities. But they do not compel us to live or work only where they can watch us, and they do not try to prohibit us from communicating through channels they cannot overhear or from travelling to where they cannot see us. On this criterion we are still far from a police state.

After surveillance comes intervention. Intelligence agencies don’t do surveillance for its own sake; they want information on which they can act. Another important difference between us and them is what the authorities do with the products of surveillance. On the basis of the information it received, the KGB intervened directly in the lives of citizens to nudge their behaviour and limit their choices. Suppose they heard that Ivan Ivanovich was behaving suspiciously or voicing undesirable views. The response, at a minimum, was to call Ivan in for an unpleasant and frightening warning. Ivan’s card would also be marked for the future. No Soviet citizen could be promoted to any management position or allowed to travel to any foreign destination without KGB clearance, and Ivan’s chances of either of these were now greatly reduced.

At the moment we have no clear evidence that any of the NSA’s programmes has impinged on the life of any citizen in this way. Nor is it clear how they might do so, other than in the form of private abuse. Again, we seem to be a long way from the working of a real police state.

Still, is there something to worry about? Absolutely. Just as there is no clear evidence that Western intelligence surveillance is taking us into an Orwellian nightmare, there is also a lack of evidence that it is effective at doing what it is supposed to do: combat terrorism and strategic threats to Western security. Western security establishments look overfunded and undermanaged.
Potentially, vast resources are being wasted to promote the careers of security empire builders. That should be of huge concern.

What is the true mission of national security in a free society? Surely it is to protect the democracy that allows us (as voters) to toss out the government, to protect our freedom (as private persons) and to be the people we want to be. A question then is: What do we want to be, or how do we want to live? Intrusive mass surveillance in the hands of a bloated security apparatus seems unlikely to protect democracy or freedom. If we seriously want to protect free speech and free association, we should set limits on surveillance and accept some risk that a few bad people will successfully exploit free speech and free association to do bad things to some of us. It’s a tough one, especially for politicians who do not want another 9/11 on their watch.

The author is a professor of economics at the University of Warwick, a research associate of Warwick’s ESRC Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy


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