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Business News/ Opinion / Online-views/  Edward N. Luttwak | The interception scandal

Edward N. Luttwak | The interception scandal

Spying on western leaders may end up being beneficial: it may hasten the creation of laws to protect privacy

Illustration by Jayachandran/MintPremium
Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint

We are now in the third phase of the interception scandal.

In Phase 1, government leaders including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, President Francois Hollande of France, Prime Minister Enrico Letta of Italy and probably the Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, too were informed by their own intelligence officials that the US National Security Agency (NSA) was intercepting their phone calls and emails, including their personal cellphones, of course.

They certainly reacted by shrugging their shoulders and asking to hear something new—they could hardly have been shocked or surprised, certainly not Chancellor Merkel who as the daughter of a Lutheran pastor in Communist East Germany, was intercepted since childhood. As for the French President, he certainly knows that the French service intercepts American communications on a grand scale—for commercial reasons, to help French companies win contracts against American competitors. (No such accusation has been heard about the NSA, but then the US economy does not have a Gaz de France, Electricite de France, etc.)

Merkel, Hollande and Co. no doubt assumed that the intercept affair would soon blow over to be replaced by other media stories. What followed, however, was not the end of the story but a Phase 2, in which a cascade of additional information on the vast scale of the interceptions generated mounting indignation, certainly among opinion writers in the media, possibly in parts of the public as well.

That, in turn, triggered Phase 3, in which the same leaders who did not complain in Phase 1 now feel compelled to issue stiff protests and loudly demand explanations from hapless American ambassadors (who, of course, know only what they read in the newspapers because the NSA is much more secretive than the Central Intelligence Agency).

It is all play-acting and pretence of course, but there is one genuine cause of resentment Merkel, Hollande and Co. have been reminded that they are not first-class allies for the US when it comes to electronic intercepts, the very core of the intelligence business—that privileged role is limited to Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, whose leaders the US does not intercept, because the entire apparatus of receiving antennas and communication relays is operated in common.

But this does not mean that revelations by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden will have no consequences. On the contrary, there will be two great changes. First, the US political elite has now become aware of the implications of “data fusion", the now simple, automatic, use of dynamic data bases to combine all digital information on any subject, such as an individual person. Its effect is to destroy privacy, thereby, taking away an essential component of personal freedom. Unless something drastic is done, the use of a credit card in a shop could be enough to show the cashier operating the till the full medical and legal history of the buyer, plus his or her interests as summed from Internet access records, etc., while government officials would, of course, have all data from all branches of the government. This discovery will soon lead to new laws—American-style laws, drastic, categorical, mandating long prison terms—that absolutely prohibit any data sharing by anyone in the private sector, and which will require a specific order from a judge to authorize data fusion by different parts of the government.

The second consequence of the Snowden revelations will be a drastic cut in the NSA’s budget. The argument that many billions of dollars must be spent to detect and read terrorist communications in the planetary flow of trillions of communications, prompted a simple question from members of the US Congress of both parties: ok, we understand, so how many terrorists were found? How many millions of dollars, or is it billions, must be spent to find a single terrorist? The answer to the first question was too low, the answer to the second question was too high. The result will be a drastic cut in spending on telephone and email intercepts. The taxpayers of America will have reason to be grateful to Snowden. Whether that will end the interception of friendly foreign leaders is another matter, of course.

Edward N. Luttwak is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Comments are welcome at

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Updated: 30 Oct 2013, 08:56 PM IST
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