NSA is to spying as drones are to warfare

The National Security Agency is to espionage as flying killer drones are to warfare.

By separating the operator from the target, the NSA and drones create a perceived illusion of safety and impunity.  By creating the illusion of omniscience, they diminish the perceived need for knowledge and good judgment.  And by their technological prowess, they escape the physical limitations that limited the scope of espionage and warfare in earlier eras.

Espionage historically has involved deception and betrayal, war has involved killing and destruction.  But repugnant as they are, they are necessary in the world as it is today.

spy-vs-spy-without-bombs-775529Historically spying, like soldiering, has involved risk.  Governments execute or imprison spies.  That is why secret agents, starting with Nathan Hale, can be legitimately regarded as heroes.  Risk has limited the scope of spying.  The ability to electronically scoop up and store electronic data about people removes this limit.

One of the things that limit American intelligence is the widespread lack of proficiency in foreign languages and lack of knowledge of foreign cultures.  Few Americans can walk around on the streets of Karachi or Tehran and be taken for anything but what they are.  But if you can read the e-mail of foreign leaders and collect meta-data on foreign peoples, you might think deep understanding unnecessary.

The NSA gathers more data than is humanly possible to understand.  This must be delegated to computer algorithms.  They sift through data to find patterns of behavior, which are them used to put people on no-fly lists or drone target lists.  The end result is that people trust the conclusions of the computer algorithm more than they trust their own judgment.

In the past, there were economic and physical limits to the scope of spying.  It was not just that governments could budget only so much money for intelligence services.  It was that there were only a certain number of people who were willing and able to take on this kind of work.

As “B Psycho” wrote in a recent post on his Psychopolitik, web log, almost all espionage historically has been committed by governments against other governments.  Any government that employed a secret police to spy on the political activities of their citizens, like the Tsarist Russian Okhrana, was regarded as despotic.

NSA-Listens-Shirtmock-620x412Now spying on citizens is regarded as the norm andgovernment-on-government spying is regarded as questionable, while spying on the headquarters of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank is absolutely out of bounds. As “B Psycho” also wrote, the degree to which you have a recognized right not to be spied on is a good indicator of where you stand in the world’s hierarchy of power.

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