Written by Cole Pfeiffer

Over the past few days, European leaders have expressed outrage over a leaked NSA memo, which suggests that the agency has been regularly monitoring Europe’s phone logs. A memo from October 2006 details how US officials provided the NSA with the phone numbers of 35 world leaders. This original list was later expanded by the NSA, who used it to discover additional previously-private phone numbers.

The memo and the ensuing scandal are only the latest post-Snowden stories that have hinted at the NSA’s growing spying network. The combined weight of these stories seems to have reached a tipping point last week, as news of the tapping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal phone came to light. The German chancellor’s case came only a few days after rumors that French phone logs had also been under NSA surveillance.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose personal phone has been under NSA surveillance [Photo credit: Reuters]

European leaders, either because of genuine moral outrage or due to calculated political maneuvering, have become increasingly vocal in their denunciations of U.S. surveillance. Their outrage has culminated in a UN anti-spying resolution, which is currently being discussed by at least 21 world leaders.

While surveillance is necessary to ensure security in an increasingly interconnecting world, international laws need to set clearly defined rules that limit the ability of spying agencies from all countries to access and store the information of private citizens.

NSA proponents have suggested that the good that comes out of the NSA programs outweighs the negative stigma that comes with spying on our allies. On October 27, Peter King, a Republican congressman from New York, reportedly stated that “NSA programs have saved thousands of lives — not just in the United States, but also in France and Germany and throughout Europe.”

While these types of statements are clearly aimed at gaining political points for appearing tough on defense issues, they do hint at a real concern that America’s enemies are using the Internet, not only as a means of organizing terrorist attacks, but as a weapon in and of itself.

The UN resolution shows that there is a need for comprehensive privacy reforms that will better account for increasingly intrusive surveillance practices such as the NSA’s. At the same time, however, the resolution misses an important point, as it fails to account for the growing number of cyber threats.

un resolution

At the United Nations, Brazil and Germany have kickstarted a draft resolution aimed at curbing U.S. surveillance practices. [Photo credit: Joshua Lott/Getty Images/AFP]

The new cyber threat

Cyber security has been an increasingly important issue in recent times. Cyber-attacks pose a legitimate threat to U.S. financial institutions, armed forces, and infrastructure. With an increasing amount of data stored in real time communication networks—also known as clouds—the threat is only bound to intensify, particularly from overseas areas beyond U.S. jurisdiction.

The idea of a shadowy American surveillance agency poking into the average citizen’s digital life is hardly a popular idea among the international community. But ironically, secret surveillance is hardly unique to the U.S. government. Indeed, it is widely understood that all the great powers have been spying on each other, in one form or another.

The rising popularity of the Internet has only muddled the boundaries of states’ sovereignty, and has accentuated their need for security. New technology enables the NSA to collect massive amount of information and store it at a very affordable cost.

The fact that a Gigabyte of stored data cost $85,000 two decades ago as opposed to a mere five cents today serves as an indicator of how far data-storage technology has progressed, and of how its costs are only bound to decrease even further. Unfortunately, the easy accessibility to such large amounts of data may fall in the wrong hands, and states need to be aware of that.

Looking ahead

It is still unquestionable, however, that the actions of the NSA have damaged America’s moral prestige. Politically uncomfortable stories, such as the case of the German Chancellor, have taken chunks out of the American claim to be exceptional. These stories seem to suggest that NSA spying may have gone too far, breaching basic norms of diplomatic behavior, including the long-respected norm of state sovereignty.

We are living in a new reality, where the rules of privacy are not well formed. While the proposed UN anti-spying resolution fails to capture the importance of cyber-security, it does highlight the need for privacy reform.  We are too used to thinking of security as a domestic problem with domestic solutions.

But the international nature of the Internet demands an international response. The answer would be not to outlaw cyber spying, but rather to invest in international laws that will better delineate how much information may be collected, and how.



3 thoughts on “NSA spying raises need for privacy reform, but cyber security still matters

  1. Pingback: Online Security: Verification and Validation | @lissnup

  2. Author’s Note: The UN would hardly be the one enforcing the law. However, the fact of the matter is that the United States’ privacy laws are hopelessly outdated. They are still based on legislation from the 1980s. Back then data storage was very expensive and most people using the internet were in the United States. Today most internet users are outside of the United States and data storage is cheap. I believe that it is in the United States’ best interest to adapt to work with other UN states to establish common laws to deal with what is a common resource, the internet. Enforcement would still be up to the individual states, and each state would have to be transparent about what information they were collecting. Likely most states (including the US) would still attempt to sneak around these laws, but at least there would be a normative framework that fits the times. Put simply: spying is necessary and frankly inevitable, but international norms (written as international laws) governing privacy are useful and need reform.

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