Spying

Two articles on the same page of Tuesday’s Washington Post reported on similar activities from opposite perspectives. In one, “A 28-year-old British man whom prosecutors described as a ‘sophisticated and prolific computer hacker’ has been charged in connection with cyberattacks in which he illegally accessed the personal information of U.S. soldiers and government employees, and obtained other information about budgets, contracts and the demolition of military facilities, authorities said Monday.” Why did he do it? Why do such people do such things? For commercial/financial gain? In this case, it seems, the motivation was political, though I am not sure what the political point was. “British-man-described-as-prolific-hacker-indicted-in-cyberattacks-on-us-agencies/2013/10/28/”

The second article discussed the NSA program to eavesdrop on friendly heads of state, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, launched in 2002. President Obama apparently did not know the extent and details of such surveillance until very recently nor did Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who oversees the NSA as the Senate Intelligence Committee chair. Why did they do it? “Their [NSA staff] job is to get as much information for policymakers as possible,” a senior administration official said. “They’re used to coming at this from the other direction — that is, being criticized for not knowing enough. This is a new dynamic for them.” “Obama-didnt-know-about-surveillance-of-us-allied-world-leaders-until-summer-officials-say/2013/10/28/”

In the first case, we were angry and in the second case Chancellor Merkel and most of Europe were angry and both with good reasons. We want our intelligence agencies to collect all of the information needed to protect us from harm. All countries spy on each other, but the tools and activities of espionage agents are potentially double-edged swords. Because of the potential dangers of turning these tools on our own citizens (and friends) for political advantage, strict limits have been placed on domestic surveillance and our allies might have assumed they were spared as well.  Unfortunately following the 9/11 attacks many American’s were more concerned about security than privacy and liberty and willing to move the balance away from protecting privacy.

When these systems of spying were first developed, those using them had (I assume) the best of intentions—gathering information from and on enemies to help protect the nation. And this is exactly what we wanted from them. Whether it is really possible to detect useful information from the millions upon millions of messages (verbal and electronic) being collected is an interesting question, however. Targeting specific individually is dramatically easier than looking for needles in massive data haystacks, but the heads of state of our allies?

Those who work for the NSA and other intelligence agencies are surely motivated by the highest objectives. But what do good people do when they have such access to information on the private activities of those they don’t like politically—republican’s able to browse around in the private affairs of democrats and visa versa?  IRS agents abusing their power against Tea Party organizations comes to mind, for example. Snowden has shown us that as time has gone on the temptation to use more widely the enormous capability available to our intelligence agencies has grown. And not one hundred present of our government officials are always honorable to begin with.  In the following article in The Washington Post, Harold Meyerson quotes the WSJ as follows: “The agency [NSA] has been rebuked repeatedly by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for misrepresenting the nature of its spy programs and for violating the court’s confidential orders.” “A-turbulent-spy-agency/2013/10/29/”

On top of this, the government’s insistence that American Internet access providers and large data collectors leave back doors through which the NSA can enter to collect data, has reduced Net security against the likes of the British hacker mentioned in my opening paragraph. Fortunately, once again, when things go too far there is a backlash. Even Senator Feinstein is saying stop.

About wcoats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 2003 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My most recent book is One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.
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1 Response to Spying

  1. David says:

    As Jesus once said, don’t build your house on the sand. So to speak

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