Monday, August 20, 2012

Spying on Other Nations

Individuals, tribes, clans, and nations have spied on each other throughout history. It seems the very attempt to hide information by one party encourages efforts to uncover this information by another. As we can see even in our online world, people often go to great lengths to protect themselves from unwanted attention by masking their true identity and tightly controlling the flow of personal information. However, this effort of concealment may appear to others to be an attempt to conceal wrongdoing, scheming, and deception for many believe that the truth should be able to stand the light of day, rather than lurk in the shadows of the night. 

However the mass media and the film industry may glamorize the exploits of spies, spying is generally a pejorative term and to be a spy may mean to be someone who intrudes upon privacy, who violates confidences, who panders to the weaknesses of troubled people, and whose very existence creates an atmosphere of mistrust and hostility. For spying ultimately springs, not from idle curiosity, but rivalry and control.

On the international level, much information about the capabilities and ambitions of other countries can be gathered in a non-intrusive manner by monitoring a country's media and the literature produced by both the public and private sectors. In countries where speech is relatively uninhibited the flow of information is much more pronounced than in nations that limit such information. But all nations keep secrets. All nations hide information that potentially affects the well-being of the citizens of other nations. And to get this information requires taking it without the consent of the other nation, in other words, stealing it. 

Much information is gathered by listening to the communications of other countries. The bits and pieces of information gathered through the interception of communications, provided they can be translated, decrypted, and properly analyzed, help form a mosaic, each piece helping to complete the bigger picture. Other information must be obtained by recruiting people that have access to the desired information. Contrary to what many might believe, the full panoply of the secrets of a nation cannot be obtained by simply cracking a few safes, swiping documents off the desks of a few key government/military officials, or dropping a few commandos in a country armed with the latest digital photographic gadgets and high-speed satellite communication equipment. Nations are far too complex and understanding military capabilities, for example, requires much more than counting troops and tanks. It requires understanding industrial capacity, access to raw materials, access to fuel, etc. 

Many secrets are not really secrets at all, but rather mysteries. A secret is a known quantity, although hidden from certain eyes. What lies in the minds of leaders may be mysteries because they themselves may not know how they will respond to events until they actually respond. The very possibility of choosing a different course of action ultimately means that no amount of intelligence-gathering will produce an infallible knowledge of another country. However, since national leaders are charged with the duty of protecting the security of the people in their countries, this responsibility demands that they be alert to threats to their country. Not having an adequate picture of the capabilities and designs of other countries may mean that decisions are ill-informed, and leaders may overreact or underreact to dangerous developments abroad. However unpleasant the methods of spying may be, the harm caused by spying is far less than the harm that can be caused by warfare between modern military forces possessing unparalleled destructive power. If spying can enhance the defense capabilities of a nation and deter surprise attacks, then spying may actually be a good; or, at least, a lesser evil than war.

One of the problems inherent in spying is that the value of the information ultimately obtained may be impossible to predict in advance. Much effort can be spent with little to show in return. In many ways, spying is a highly inefficient use of a nation’s resources. But nations are reluctant to curtail spying activities as long as other nations continue to spy. Unilateral gestures, however edifying in the short term, probably won’t convince other countries to return the favor. So an important question remains as to whether a nation can forgo or reduce spying activities without seriously jeopardizing national security, whose protection is the moral responsibility of the leader. 

Unfortunately, those not possessing access to information gathered are ill-equipped to answer the question of whether what is gathered via spying is critical to national security (or other national interests) and therefore worth the moral compromises that might be necessary to collect it. What are the moral compromises? What harm does spying actually cause? Surely anyone possessing access to corporate/military/government secrets should reasonably expect to be a target for foreign powers. Knowing this, they can adjust their behavior accordingly by making themselves less vulnerable to exploitation. Playing this game is simply one of the job requirements.

Yet, is it really morally permissible to engage in deceit, to blackmail, to burglarize offices, to eavesdrop on phone calls, to prey on the weaknesses of others, to entice citizens of foreign nations to betray their countries? Are there ethical boundaries to what a nation can do to obtain information about other nations? Is it ethical to steal secrets for purposes less directly related to national defense? 

For the time being, let’s set aside legal concerns. Of course, spying activities violate the domestic laws of the target nations, even though spying may not violate what is referred to as “international law”. What I’m interested in now are the ethical concerns, right and wrong, morally permissible or morally impermissible, justified or unjustified. 

Remember that claims that spying is immoral or that ethical spying is a logical impossibility are conclusions, not arguments. In the distant future, there may be a world government, with power and resources, to enforce a universally agreed upon law of conduct. Until that time, nations do have a legitimate interest in identifying threats to their well-being. Finding the boundaries of the activities in support of this interest is the task at hand.

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