Backlash inevitable as no one likes being spied upon

Revelations about the US and other governments snooping on electronic communication may have serious implications for international relations.

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Since Edward Snowden, a contractor with Booz Allen Hamilton, leaked documents revealing that the United States National Security Agency is collecting data on vast numbers of Americans, much of the debate in the US has focused on whether this is a breach of the American law. However, there has been little outrage with the NSA's surveillance of the communications of non-Americans.

Such surveillance may not violate the law because spying overseas is generally regarded as defensible. But such actions represent a serious violation of privacy. They may affect foreign individuals, especially those with ties to the US, in negative ways. And they may even harm future cooperation between America and other countries.

Numerous surveillance programmes are currently in place. Through one of them, Prism, the NSA has access to the American servers of major technology companies, such as Google, Skype, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, YouTube, AOL and Apple, among others. In this way, it has scooped up certain data of non-Americans living overseas as it passes through those servers as well as, inevitably, the data of Americans communicating with them. This information includes the actual content of communications, not just so-called metadata.

Through the Fairview programme, according to Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, the NSA has partnered with an unidentified American telecommunications company, which in turn has partnered with foreign telecoms companies, allowing the NSA to enter the latter's systems and direct telecoms traffic to the agency's computers.

In parallel, the United Kingdom's GCHQ, the counterpart of the NSA, has been collecting massive amounts of data by tapping into fibre-optic cables passing through the country. Though not American, the operation, code-named Tempora, has amassed information shared with the NSA (though under which legal authority remains unclear), probably circumventing American oversight mechanisms. The NSA has simultaneously provided information to GCHQ. The two sides have co-operated within an ambiguous legal framework, which they have likely exploited to expand the information they can gather.

When Mr Snowden's leaks were made public, allies of the US saw that Prism was being used to spy on their citizens. Several European countries threatened to delay negotiations for a US-European free-trade agreement until the matter was resolved but did not follow through on this. France has engaged in its own surveillance scheme, reinforcing the view that since everybody does it, precipitating a crisis with the US was not a good idea.

That does not help citizens whose privacy is routinely being ignored by the NSA and its British counterpart. America's European partners may not want to get caught up in a catfight with the Obama administration but such blanket surveillance can have repercussions that damage their relations with the US. And all those who fear being mistakenly caught up in the massive web of information accumulated by the Americans are right to worry.

Innocent foreigners who have ties with the US, or who travel there, could be vulnerable through information provided by Prism. Arab names in particular often are confusing to non-Arabs, leading to cases of mistaken identity. People will continue to be wrongly placed on no-fly lists, a step the Americans never justify. The amount of information is such that the potential for foreigners to be wrongfully suspected will be high.

The information from Prism also facilitates blackmail, since the intelligence agencies can accumulate the most intimate details of a person's life. This may be par for the course for these agencies but it is especially worrisome when individuals are pursued into the depths of their own homes thanks to a surveillance campaign that utterly ignores local laws, let alone Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which defends privacy.

Worse, for the internet to be transformed into an instrument of blackmail could have a far-reaching impact on American domination of the web and the financial health of the companies routinely providing access to US intelligence agencies. These companies have reacted with embarrassment and caginess to accusations that they participated in the Prism programme. They are the weak link in the larger picture, for if they begin systematically challenging NSA requests, this may severely hinder the collection process.

Another problem has to do with cooperation down the road between the US and other countries over terrorism, and much more.

If friendly countries feel the US is wantonly spying on them, their willingness to share information with Washington may decline. Vital facts may not be passed on as intelligence agencies become more adversarial. While a complete breakdown is unlikely, foreign intelligence agencies may have an interest in leveraging their importance by showing how disregarding them can be costly to American security, forcing the US to curb its eavesdropping.

The NSA's unbounded surveillance efforts open a Pandora's box. In the long term, the backlash may be more severe than US intelligence officials realise. People don't like to be spied on, nor do governments.

America's effectiveness has always come from enlisting others in collective security endeavours. Whether this can be maintained is a question Americans must think about carefully, rather than scoffing at those criticising their highhandedness.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

On Twitter: @BeirutCalling