NSA Surveillance: Who Will Guard the Guards?

The recent Snowden revelations have unravelled a new wave of diplomatic crises. Although foreign surveillance is a necessary component of national security, one must wonder who will keep them in check?

Spying happens: It is an integral part of national security. In this post-Cold War world where enemies can no longer be pin-pointed on a map, where threats range from transnational groups plotting the downfall of the West, to acne ridden teenagers sitting behind a laptop getting their kicks from hacking government websites, surveillance still remains a necessity. We can no longer emphatically label each nation as friend or foe, as threats are both individual and international, and thus it must endure on a global scale. But where should the lines be drawn?

Bugging the German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone is perhaps an example of overstepping the line. Espionage is a game that has endured for decades, and each country spies on one another, ‘allies’ or not. Each government indubitably know that this occurs. However the difference here lies in having a man on the inside, giving intermittent updates on government business, to continuously listening in on the personal and private phone calls of a democratically elected head of state.  Some of the reasons put forward for this, included gaining the ability to get the upper hand on trade and armament deals. This isn’t for the purposes of ‘national security’: it is capitalism gone sour.

Regarding the NSA monitoring millions of civilian phone calls it is a similar story. The French summoned the US ambassador upon the revelations, but this somewhat hypocritical: the French foreign intelligence agency,  ‘Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure’ was earlier this year allegedly revealed to be running a similar operation. Most nations do it, because most nations need to.

However, the problem here is the sheer quantity. The monitoring of 70.3 million phone-calls in one month is more than just a little excessive. Similarly, there were 60 million phone-calls monitored in the same time period in Spain. True, as for the reasons above, a degree of surveillance is necessary for national security. Yet this amount is more than a cause for concern, and it is an utter miracle that such a large scale operation has not been unearthed before. It begs the question, how many of these monitored phone calls actually produced information of value, and how many actually revealed a threat to US national security? Somehow, I believe it to be few.

The White House has recognized a need to place constraints. But with something so sensitive, it is inherently difficult to keep in check. At the very least, to avoid such diplomatic disputes over phone surveillance, there must be more cooperation between European governments and the U.S. The UK and the U.S. have such a relationship, and similarly as do U.S. and Japan, with the other Snowden revelations showing that they had in fact attempted cooperation on surveillance, despite the request being rejected. However, with regards to ensuring that surveillance agencies such as the NSA do not go too far, and overstep that line, it is a conundrum that remains unanswerable. The situation brings to mind an old enigmatic phrase:  ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Or for those of you who don’t speak Latin: ‘who will guard the guards?’

Sean Coley

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