Why the NSA undermines national security

Questions about the legitimacy and efficacy of the mass-surveillance techniques used by the National Security Agency continue to swirl around the globe. The debate in the United States has mostly focused on a misleading trade-off between security and privacy.

Eileen Donahoe

“If you don’t have anything to hide,” goes the refrain, “you shouldn’t mind if the government collects information to prevent another terrorist attack.” In this trade-off, security will always trump privacy, especially when political leaders rightly see preventing terrorist acts as their top national security responsibility.

But this zero-sum framework ignores the significant damage that the NSA’s practices have done to U.S. national security. In a global digital world, national security depends on many factors beyond surveillance capacities, and over-reliance on global data collection can create unintended security vulnerabilities.

There’s a better framework than security-versus-privacy for evaluating the national security implications of mass-surveillance practices. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it “smart power.”

Her idea acknowledges that as global political power has become more diffuse, U.S. interests and security increasingly depend on our ability to persuade partners to join us on important global security actions. But how do we motivate disparate groups of people and nations to join us? We exercise smart power by inspiring trust and building credibility in the global community.

Developing these abilities is as important to U.S. national security as superior military power or intelligence capabilities.

I adopted the smart-power approach when serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Our task at the council was to work with allies, emerging democracies and human rights-friendly governments to build coalitions to protect international human rights. We also built alliances with civil society actors, who serve as powerful countervailing forces in authoritarian systems. These partnerships can reinforce stable relationships, which enhances U.S. security.

The NSA’s arbitrary global surveillance methods fly in the face of smart power. In the pursuit of information, the spy agency has invaded the privacy of foreign citizens and political leaders, undermining their sense of freedom and security. NSA methods also undercut U.S. credibility as a champion of universal human rights.

The U.S. model of mass surveillance will be followed by others and could unintentionally invert the democratic relationship between citizens and their governments. Under the cover of preventing terrorism, authoritarian governments may now increase surveillance of political opponents. Governments that collect and monitor digital information to intimidate or squelch political opposition and dissent can more justifiably claim they are acting with legitimacy.

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For human rights defenders and democracy activists worldwide, the potential consequences of the widespread use by governments of mass surveillance techniques are dark and clear.

Superior information is powerful, but sometimes it comes at greater cost than previously recognized. When trust and credibility are eroded, the opportunity for collaboration and partnership with other nations on difficult global issues collapses. The ramifications of this loss of trust have not been adequately factored into our national security calculus.

What is most disconcerting is that the NSA’s mass surveillance techniques have compromised the security of telecommunication networks, social media platforms, private-sector data storage and public infrastructure security systems. Authoritarian governments and hackers now have a roadmap to surreptitiously tap into private networks for their own nefarious purposes.

By weakening encryption programs and planting backdoor entries to encryption software, the NSA has demonstrated how it is possible to infiltrate and violate information-security systems. In effect, the spy agency has modeled anarchic behavior that makes everyone less safe.

Some have argued, though, that there is a big difference between the U.S. government engaging in mass-surveillance activities and authoritarian governments doing so. That “big difference” is supposed to be democratic checks and balances, transparency and adherence to the rule of law. Current NSA programs, however, do not operate within these constraints.

With global standards for digital surveillance now being set, our political leaders must remember that U.S. security depends upon much more than unimpeded surveillance capabilities. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of President Barack Obama’s most trusted international partners, has wisely reminded us, just because we can do something does not mean that we should do it.

National security policies that fail to calculate the real costs of arbitrary mass surveillance threaten to make us less secure. Without trusted and trusting partners, U.S. priority initiatives in complex global negotiations will be non-starters.

The president, his advisers and our political leaders should reassess the costs of the NSA’s spy programs on our national security, our freedom and our democracy. By evaluating these programs through a smart-power lens, we will be in a stronger position to regain the global trust and credibility so central to our national security.

PHOTO (TOP): A mobile phone simulating a call to German Chancellor Angela Merkel next to a tablet computer showing the logo of the United Staes’ National Security Agency is seen in this multiple exposure picture illustration taken in Frankfurt, October 28, 2013. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Antennas and suspected covered windows (L) are pictured in a thermal image taken with an infrared camera on the roof of the U.S. embassy in Berlin October 27, 2013. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

PHOTO (INSERT 2): A National Security Agency data gathering facility in Bluffdale, about 25 miles (40 km) south of Salt Lake City, Utah, December 16, 2013. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart