Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Economics of Spying

The UK's Guardian newspaper has had a good run of scoops based on US-fugitive Edward Snowden's revelations about the scale of spying activity by the American government, and its connections with British and other government spy agencies. Until Monday evening, 20 August, however, it had denied itself another scoop - that UK government officials came to its London offices in July to demand the leaked US National Security Agency files. In the event, they agreed with these officials to destroy the copy the Guardian had in London, and yesterday published pictures of the relevant dismembered hard drive. It is not clear why there was such a delay in reporting the July visit, but one suspects that it might have been due to the 9-hour detention of David Miranda, partner of the main story reporter, Glenn Greenwald, by the Brits. The latter is likely to provoke Greenwald into more embarrassing revelations and this would make the Guardian's continued silence on its own treatment by the UK government also a little embarrassing.

Much of the coverage of official spying activity has been in terms of the potential loss of personal privacy on the Internet, in phone calls and emails. By contrast, the state response has been to stress the need for such actions in the fight against 'terrorism'. When officials sense that might not be enough to assuage liberal concerns, they sometimes also mention how it is needed to combat 'serious organised crime'. The much more plausible rationale for the huge extent and cost of this surveillance, however, is that it makes good business sense!

Far from trawling through zillions of gigabytes of data to uncover the latest plot, the intelligence agencies are much more likely to be monitoring a select subset of the communications, the ones that really interest them. As the Guardian itself reported two months ago, the UK's GCHQ has intercepted communications at G20 summits. Less politically charged, more mundane, but much more profitable surveillance of key corporate communications about business deals, strategy and innovations will also take place on a regular basis. Any problem they might have with continuing this activity is the main 'threat to national security'.

I'm just a little surprised that the UK government has not had the sense to explain this to the public. I am sure they would understand, given the consensus that exists on doing what is good for the country.

Tony Norfield, 21 August 2013

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