The False Dichotomy of Better and Worse Spies

14 Nov. 2014

Would you rather be spied on by the Americans...than, say, the Chinese? This blog challenges the dichotomy of better and worse spies.

Last Updated: 22 Sep 2015

This is the 2nd blog of the MyShadow series: "Why shrugging at the Snowden revelations is a bad idea"


Author: Maria Xynou, Researcher at Tactical Tech

"I'd rather be spied on by the Americans...than, say, the Chinese"

The argument that it's preferable to be spied on by one government over another implies that the institutions, laws, regulations and mechanisms in one regime can safeguard citizens more adequately than in others. It also assumes that it is “safer” to be spied on by some intelligence agencies, rather than by others. However, in this blog I argue that the dichotomy of “better” and “worse” spies appears to be a false and dangerous one because the actions of government agencies raises serious questions with regards to what data is collected, how intelligence agencies handle such data and who they subsequently share it with.

The Snowden revelations have given us an insight to the extent to which the NSA, the GCHQ and other intelligence agencies are collecting and storing personal data about everyone around the world. Through mass and targeted surveillance, data such as our personal emails, location, browsing habits and who we communicate with is routinely being collected, processed, analysed and stored. However, who has access to such data across time and how they handle it remains quite opaque.

The U.S has Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties (MLATs) - agreements between countries for the purpose of gathering and exchanging information to enforce criminal laws - with multiple countries it shares intelligence data with, including the United Kingdom, Israel, Malaysia and Thailand. In addition, the U.S also has a Mutual Legal Assistance Agreement (MLAA) with China, an agreement which sets out conditions relating to the provision of mutual legal assistance in criminal matters and through which the U.S and China can share intelligence data. As the global legal infrastructure allows for intelligence data sharing between countries, the classification of intelligence agencies as “better” and “worse” spies is a falacy.

Documents leaked by Snowden reveal that the NSA has aided both Turkey in its operations against Kurdish separatists and Israel in the surveillance of Palestinians. In other cases, the U.S analysis of cell phone metadata has resulted in the death of individuals in Yemen, Afghanistan and elsewhere by drone strikes. Documents also reveal that U.S. drone stikes in Somalia were likely aided by Dutch intelligence agencies which intercepted the mobile communications of Somalis.

In short, intelligence agencies around the world collaborate and routinely share intelligence data. In some cases, such intelligence sharing has had major consequences and has resulted in extrajudicial killings. In these cases, the collectors of the data, the spies, have not been held accountable for collecting, aggregating and sharing this data.

We cannot control who will have access to our data once it has been collected, nor how it will subsequently be used. Therefore, the dichotomy of “better” and “worse” spies is a false one in my opinion because, in the end of the day, what matters is that we are losing the control over our personal data and, to some extent, our lives.

View the rest of the blog series here and/or check out our blog series timeline.


Source of image: