Is Spying Okay?S

In the aftermath of the revelations about the NSA's secret spying programs, there is plenty of anger to go around. American citizens are pissed that they were spied on. European governments are pissed that they were spied on. Nobody, it seems, is happy with being spied on. So why is spying such an accepted institution?

The utility of spying is obvious: it gets our government information that our government wants. But utility is not a justification. Stealing, for example, has the same utility as spying— it gets someone something they want— yet we understand that stealing is wrong. It infringes upon the rights of the person whose possessions are being stolen. Spying is much like stealing, except that it is secrets, rather than possessions, being stolen. Spying infringes upon the basic right to privacy. Governments implicitly acknowledge this, by keeping all their spying activities secret.

Upon discovering that the NSA was collecting metadata and possibly more on virtually all communications in America, we Americans had the (quite reasonable) gut reaction: Hey, stop that. That's fucked up. We believe that we have a natural right to privacy. We believe that, absent extenuating circumstances of a very rare kind, that right to privacy should be respected by our government. It offends our sense of fairness. It strikes us as an unwarranted intrusion. We do not volunteer to be spied upon. We do not appreciate being spied upon. We do not approve of being spied upon.

Governments, likewise, do not want to be spied upon. European nations that are ostensibly our allies are outraged at this weekend's report that America bugged their diplomatic offices. The U.S. government displayed a sense of righteous outrage at the Chinese government's rampant online spying and computer hacking; now, our government finds itself in the position of having to justify the same behavior. All of these countries spend billions of dollars on their own spy agencies, and billions more to try to prevent other countries from spying on them.

We, the people, generally take a glib attitude towards our own government's massive spying infrastructure. Until it's directed at us. We live in a nation in which more than 850,000 people have top-secret security clearances, and 50,000 intelligence reports are published each year. This is the spying-industrial complex of America: massive, pervasive, and operating almost totally out of the public eye. We enjoy movies about CIA spies. We devour fiction about intriguing spy plots around the world. But we rarely stop to question the cognitive dissonance inherent in our blithe acceptance of something that we all object to, when we are its targets.

No one is under the illusion that public disapproval can instantly eradicate— or even meaningfully slow down— such a massive and powerful system of what is euphemistically called "intelligence." In the long term, though, all grey-area government activities depend upon the acquiescence of the public, or at least the public's willingness to look the other way. This is far bigger than "antiterrorism"; this is worldwide electronic spying that extends to our closest allies. Our general acceptance of the institution of government spying is an unspoken acceptance of the proposition that our government's interests are so important that they justify invading the privacy of foreign nationals and foreign governments simply because they are not us, and therefore not perfectly aligned with our own interests. And it implies acceptance of an even less savory truth: our government will be given our permission to lie to us.

For if we accept and approve of the government secrecy that is a fundamental part of spying as it now stands, we also must allow for the fact that our elected leaders and their appointed functionaries— the ones with all those top secret security clearances— will breezily lie to us about what all those spying programs are doing. Of course they will! And we will happily accept it, because we have given them our permission to deceive us, when we decided to approve of a massive and publicly unaccountable spying infrastructure in the first place. It's not just James Clapper flatly lying to Congress about the NSA's domestic spying activities; it's Barack Obama saying that "if you are a U.S. person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls and the NSA cannot target your e-mails,” an example of dishonest verbal ju-jitsu if there ever was one.

To the extent that spying can prevent wars and make the world a safer place, it has value. To the extent that it erodes civil liberties, eats away at privacy, makes a mockery of the concept of open government, destroys trust between allies, and sets each country on earth against one another in an unnecessary and unending low-grade Cold War of information theft, it is problematic. Either way, government spying as a concept and an institution is certainly deserving of more scrutiny than we generally give it. And there's no better time to start talking about it than right now.

[Photo: Flickr]