NSA Spying: An Interview

On Monday, Yasser Seddiq, an Egyptian journalist working currently for Ahram Online, the English language the electronic news website of Egypt’s Ahram newspaper, contacted me regarding the US National Security Agency spying revelations. Below are his questions and my answers.

1-      After a series of reports of alleged U.S. eavesdropping on foreign leaders and others that has surprised and angered allies, do you think the US administration could escape the bad effects of the scandal locally and internationally?

I do not believe the US Government can escape the negative perception that the spying scandal has generated. President Obama’s foreign policy has, in large part, been premised upon soft power and engagement, as readers will remember from his speech in Cairo when he first came to office. These latest revelations of widespread surveillance undo efforts to rebuild relations with key states after the Bush years. The Snowden leak has opened up the security versus liberty debate and the question of accountability and oversight in intelligence operations. These latest accusations will push more people to agree that the US (and its allies) have overstepped the mark in their surveillance activities since 9/11. While the revelations might not be news to many intelligence officials, it will be surprising (and worrying) for many ordinary people.  

2-      Could you tell our readers how the NSA will make use of the huge data it collected since it was being granted sweeping powers by Congress in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks?

 Data harvesting is happening on a huge scale, with leaked information from the NSA suggesting they hope to “master the internet”. The official line so far has been that “just because we know of you doesn’t mean we know about you”. This means that although your personal data and communications may have been collected, unless you have triggered certain thresholds, or are on particular lists, US officials will not be actively reading your emails. Quite simply, the mountain of collected data is too huge for everything to be looked at in detail. 

3-      The classified documents leaked by former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden showed that the NSA hacked the computer network of Brazil’s state-run oil company Petrobras and scooped up data on emails and telephone calls flowing through the country; My question is how the targeted nations or entities could defend its right to privacy on the Internet?

 That will depend on the nation in question. In Europe we have already seen an EU wide move to force the US to abide by expected norms of surveillance between allies. The UK, for example, was silently acquiesced into accepting this pan-EU move. Things will look very different outside of the EU, where individual states will be left to formulate their own responses.

4-      Charges that the NSA accessed tens of thousands of French phone records and monitored Merkel’s mobile phone have caused outrage in Europe. Do you think the Europeans will take tougher action now they have begun work on a draft resolution to submit to the 193-nation General Assembly. Will they ask for action from President Barack Obama, not just apologetic words, or will they will maintain the partnership with the US, especially on their war on terror, that necessitates sharing information?

The US is the EU’s most important ally by some margin. Any condemnation will be coupled with extensive back-channel efforts to maintain close and harmonious ties. Public condemnation will be balanced with private reassurance.

5-      These closures take us to the question that are social networks, such as Facebook and twitter. Could they be easily hacked, or the accounts of the users accessed by any intelligence services? That surely will harm the users ?

I think it is now safe to assume that anything you do online, without taking unusually high security measures, is potentially accessible by state governments. Social networks are a relatively easy source of information.

6-      Leaked documents have revealed that the U.S. National Security Agency intercepted 125 billion phone calls and SMS messages in January 2013, many of them in the Middle East. Do you think these countries have the ability to do counter-espionage measures to protect the privacy of its people? And how to maintain its security”

Yes, to an extent. Some of the outrage at these revelations has been exaggerated for public impact, given that many states engage in similar operations. However, the US has a surveillance and intelligence network that few other states can get close to, in terms of its scale and sophistication.

This was on 28th October 2013. The week before, I gave ‘Expert Comment’ on the University’s website, which mentions a couple of similar themes:

“President Obama was elected on an apparent platform of change, yet his foreign policy has been notable for its high degree of continuity. There are echoes of the War on Terror and Cold War in the latest accusations leveled against the United States and its surveillance activities. In France, President Hollande has berated the US over spying claims and the American Ambassador to France has faced difficult questioning from top diplomats. In Germany, Chancellor Merkel, keenly sensitive to the excesses of surveillance, has called the President of the United States over concerns her mobile phone was bugged. Obama has denied that there is truth to the scale and specifics of the accusations, which have arisen based on information in documents leaked by Edward Snowden. What is undeniable is the damage of negative perception to the White House. President Obama’s foreign policy has been centred on the twin (mutually reinforcing) prioritisation of soft power and engagement. Accusations of spying on your allies certainly will not help efforts to repair relations with European nations following the damaging Bush years.”

Dr Jack Holland is Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Surrey, and author of Selling the War on Terror and co-editor of Obama’s Foreign Policy (published this month).