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Analysis: Eight global repercussions from the PRISM disclosures

Navy-Radome-1By Simon Davies

America’s combative response to the PRISM disclosures – namely the targeting and personalisation of a lone rogue – is likely to trigger wide-ranging and unexpected consequences for the NSA that will go well beyond the immediate diplomatic ripples.

The creation of Dramatis personæ in the form of Edward Snowden has shifted PRISM from the theoretical realm to the world of flesh and blood

The creation of Dramatis personæ in the form of Edward Snowden has shifted PRISM from the theoretical realm to the world of flesh and blood – triggering implications that the US may find difficult to manage. With few exceptions, previous controversies of this nature have quickly petered out in the public consciousness for lack of a simple point of reference.  Now – possibly for the first time at such a level – there is a human face.

There are countless imponderables of course. Much of the testy reaction of some governments may be little more than posturing, suggesting that the NSA’s activities could end up merely a negotiating trinket in minor geopolitical re-positioning. After all, the NSA has been conducting deep surveillance at a global level for decades, and few governments would have been unaware of its activities. With some rearranging of the deck chairs there is a risk that the global spying regime could return to business as usual.

There is, however, a view that the US has wildly overreacted to the events, creating PR stakes that are unnecessarily high. Wheeling out a president to engage diplomatic brinkmanship has not only turned a security problem into a contest of power, it has also created a polemic at multiple levels.

Even discounting warnings from US lawmakers that there are more dramatic revelations to come, some outcomes can be predicted with a reasonable degree of certainty.

Wheeling out a president to engage diplomatic brinkmanship has not only turned a security problem into a contest of power, it has also created a polemic at multiple levels.

First, the US is likely to accelerate efforts to plug gaps in its surveillance matrix. The Snowden affair has very publicly exposed significant weaknesses in the agency’s targeting and tracking capability.

Historically the NSA’s response to such failure has been to demand tighter controls and more data. It’s only a matter of time before the agency – or the US administration – argues that Snowden’s success at eluding authorities will send the “wrong message” to terrorist groups and organised crime. From both an operational and a symbolic perspective there could be a major push by the US for even greater travel surveillance and data collection at a global level.

The catch-22 is that the NSA has become more openly politicised. Some parliaments – if not governments -  might be less willing to contribute to enhanced surveillance initiatives. This may apply particularly to “third party” or “less trusted” partners in the NSA’s global arrangements.

Second, once the witch hunt has died down it’s likely the Obama administration will come under pressure to create genuine reform for oversight of the NSA. Former NSA and CIA Director, General Michael Hayden, has on this site critized the erosion of accountability of the agency – a view unwittingly reinforced by former Vice President Dick Chaney, who admitted that in his time congressional leaders had covertly opposed greater accountability. The White House may be compelled to make changes to the oversight and authorisation processes – including opening up operational scrutiny and reforming FISA, the key oversight legislation in the US.

From both an operational and a symbolic perspective there could be a major push by the US for even greater travel surveillance and data collection at a global level.

Third – when the smoke finally lifts - the true information security implications of the PRISM/Snowden affair will become clear. Snowden was a relatively low-level contractor. Governments and the public have yet to digest the security implications of a spying system involving many hundreds of system administrators that appears to be held together with little more than template secrecy agreements. This could possibly result in a push to eliminate external contractors and bring NSA activities “in house”. This option is already being widely discussed.

Fourth, a pragmatic and a moral imperative has been created that may accelerate funding and investment for research into technologies of circumvention. This trend would in itself, however, provide the NSA with weaponry to push back against greater transparency of its activities.

Such a response occurred in the 1990s during the “crypto wars” when the US government attempted to regulate encryption development and deployment. The proposed restrictive policy triggered a centre of gravity that attracted significant interest in circumvention.

Fifth, the revelations will continue to spark renewed interest in strengthened privacy protections in other parts of the world. As noted in previous articles on this site, hitherto successful lobbying by the US to weaken privacy protections in emerging European and Indian law may now be nullified as parliamentarians reconsider their compliant position.

Sixth, connected directed with the point above, online providers will need to take privacy more seriously. The first wave of the PRISM story detailed NSA access to the servers of Apple, Microsoft and other companies – a situation that the companies deny knowledge of. However as the controversy widens there will be increased focus on what steps these providers are taking to avoid becoming outsourced storage facilities for security agencies.

A pragmatic and a moral imperative has been created that may accelerate funding and investment for research into technologies of circumvention.

Seventh, both the PRISM disclosures and the pursuit of Snowden are likely to create a new benchmark for privacy awareness and advocacy. Opinion formers who have until now viewed privacy of communications as a peripheral issue may recalibrate their assessment. Importantly – like ECHELON sixteen years before – a catchy brand name for institutional surveillance will enter the public vocabulary and could provide a powerful linguistic device for the expression of general concern about surveillance.

Yes, it has been falsely predicted with previous privacy scandals, but in this case the controversy – because it is so human-centred – could create new dimensions in public perception of the value of privacy, resulting in a popular push for more meaningful legal protections over the security of information.

Finally, the US may need to rework the terms of its SIGINT (signals intelligence) arrangements with many countries - including trusted partner nations. The recent revelations have clearly come as a surprise to some countries and it’s possible that new agreements would require greater transparency.

This situation applies in particular to European states, which have expressed dismay over the activities of the NSA’s closest partner, the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), which has worked for decades with the NSA to spy on the communications of European nations. Germany has demanded an explanation of these activities.

Whether or not Snowden is captured will be irrelevant to outcomes that could affect the NSA’s international positioning. Whatever the result of the current drama, it’s probable that there’ll be a perceptible shift both in the dynamics of intelligence arrangements and in the public view of privacy.