Say the word “espionage” to a group of college students. What do they think of? James Bond? Austin Powers? The U.S. government? Whistleblower Edward Snowden has revamped the true meaning of the word past Hollywood to the reality that the National Security Agency has extended its tendrils into American citizens’ emails and overseas.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff spoke to the United Nations Tuesday about just how far electronic espionage has gone, and what measures the world should take to cut back on international spying. Rousseff did not name the U.S. or NSA in her address, but after Snowden revealed the NSA allegedly peered into Rousseff’s cell phone and email, it is hard to ignore the implications of her speech. According to a CNN article Sept. 18, several of Rousseff’s advisors and Petrobras, a large oil company in Brazil, also had their private communication accessed.
“Without the right of privacy, there is no real freedom of speech or freedom of opinion, and so there is no actual democracy,” Rousseff said. And “without respect for [a nation’s] sovereignty, there is no basis for proper relations among nations.”
And that is where she hits the nail on the head. How can the NSA maintain ties between nation states to ensure American national security?
This isn’t the first time the U.S. has caused a rift between itself and another country due to surveillance. This whole NSA controversy — government officials deciding on who should be monitored (which is pretty much everyone) — seemingly started as a domestic issue. But now, just as Brazil and the U.S. almost got to discuss peaceful relations and to develop a relationship as allies, the whole thing fell apart. The Brazilian president postponed a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama Sept. 17 because of the country’s raucous to Snowden’s allegations. They plan to meet Oct. 23.
In January 2012, the UN essentially equated offline human rights to online human rights. Both Brazil and the U.S. supported this, according to an Aljazeera article Tuesday. So now, Rousseff is proposing the establishment of a UN backed international structure governing Internet use. This would hypothetically work if the NSA had boundaries in domestic surveillance. With NSA buzzwords like “water,” literally anyone who has ever texted, “Can you bring me a bottle of water?” has been flagged.
We also have to remember that the U.S. is not the only country with access to the technology to execute this kind of espionage. Remember when the Syrian Electric Army shut down The New York Times’ website this summer? How about when Chinese hackers tried to access Washington Post emails?
There is nothing the UN can do about it at this point. If these sorts of actions have been a secret for so long, they can be swept right back under the rug — unless Edward Snowden 2.0 emerges.
Electronic espionage, especially in another leader’s cell phone, puts way too much concentrated power in too small an area that is not regulated, balanced or transparent. But the magic of electronic spying is that the investigator can go undetected. People are finally making the argument that the way the U.S. uses this power to breach trust with other countries is not appropriate, respectful or legal. In a time when the U.S. is striving for a better world image, transparency in this program, instead of a manhunt for a whistleblower, is more appropriate.