Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Sino-Russian energy deal creates important opportunities

After years of negotiations, one of the largest energy deals in the history of the world’s oil industry occurred this week between Russian energy giant Rosneft and the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). The $US270 billion agreement will secure energy supply and demand needs for both Moscow and Beijing, and points to a mutually beneficial relationship for the two warming Asian heavyweights.

The deal will employ the mostly completed Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline. This pipeline will allow Russia to deliver 2.1 million barrels of oil to the Pacific Ocean at ports in Vladivostok, Sakhalin I, and Tianjin.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin said Rosneft will
supply hundreds of millions of tons of crude oil to China

Rosneft will supply CNPC an enormous 365 million metric tons of crude oil over the next 25 years. Currently taking deliveries of around 300,000 barrels per day (bpd), China is set to double those shipments to 600,000 bpd pumped by 2015. Also, during the St. Petersburg Economic Forum where the recent deal was finalised, Beijing intimated an expansion of the 600,000 bpd is expected in the future as well.

Aside from the gigantic oil shipment figures and the enormous worth of the agreement, the deal is geopolitically significant for both Russia and China. The Asia region only accounted for roughly 4 percent of Russian oil exports in 2005, but those deliveries are expected to rise to 30 percent by 2015, according to Rosneft spokespeople, as the recent deal and others come online.

For Rosneft, in great need of financing, an upfront payment of $US70 billion from CNPC makes this agreement very welcome. On the homefront the deal will go a long way to increase Rosneft’s political influence and help pull it from beneath the giant shadow of fellow-Russian energy firm Gazprom.

Russian energy firm competition is one reason for the increasing emphasis on selling Russian oil and natural gas to the Asia Pacific region, but that is not the full picture. Moscow, which still maintains a close eye on Russian energy firms, has a great incentive to diversify its energy export portfolio.

Presently, Europe is by far the largest consumer of Russian energy, accounting for over 78 percent of yearly export totals. Although those numbers have not yet dropped appreciably, the development of indigenous energy fields in Ukraine and other Eastern European countries will help those countries lessen their reliance on Russia for their energy needs.

Also, energy fields being developed in the United States could offer Western European countries a viable second option for their energy consumption, both of which will have a profound effect on Russian exports.

Since Russia relies heavily on its energy exports to keep their cash flow high, Moscow is preparing for the possibility that continued diversification of European energy imports and a dangerously imbalanced European economy might create an insurmountable obstacle in the short to medium term.

In this fragile environment, Moscow is looking east.

Chinese cities are swelling, especially deeper into the Chinese mainland. As Beijing looks to expand its focus away from coastal regions - where much of its past economic growth has occurred – and toward the rural underdeveloped interior provinces, it will need greater amounts of energy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese
Executive Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli at
St Petersburg International
Economic Forum - AFP/Pool/Dmitry Lovetsky
Alongside the inland urbanisation project, Beijing is interested in increasing its domestic consumption rates to offset the decline in low-cost goods orders to Western countries and to ensure a growing section of middle-class Chinese are supported. Prompting urban growth is a central aspect of Beijing’s efforts.

All this requires energy, and Beijing is acutely aware of the obstacles presently blocking its attempts to secure reliable energy supplies from further afield in Africa, South Asia, and the greater Asia Pacific. Moving closer to Russia is a strategic decision, but it will also help ease the tension between the two countries over China’s determined pursuit of new sources of oil in Central Asia.

China has welcomed the possibility for increased Russian energy deliveries to feed its own rapidly growing economy. Getting closer to Moscow might require bending to Russian influence in the contested Central Asia region, but the prospect of continued, reliable, and profitable energy shipments is simply too great a chance to pass up for Beijing.

Moscow understands that China’s appetite for energy will only increase in the years to come. China is expected to see a 75 percent increase of its crude oil imports by 2035. By positioning its own energy firms to supply China with the oil it needs, Moscow is protecting its bank account health and its influence over Former Soviet Union states, an influence which might have been challenged by Beijing in the future.  

China too will breathe a sigh of relief this week as the deal moves through the stages of finalisation. Now that it has secured a reliable flow of oil from deep Russian reserves, the Chinese government’s many domestic projects can now be given more attention.

While this deal was signed, bilateral trade between Russia and China is expected to reach $US100 billion by 2015. As the two countries find more reasons to draw closer together, they will have to ensure their economic futures do not become overly reliant on each other.

Russia could have all the energy China needs tucked away in its vast fields of Siberian oil and natural gas. But it is far from certain yet that Russia possesses the long-term political or physical ability to deliver that energy, and equally uncertain that China will continue to grow fast enough to fund the enormous quantities of oil requested for delivery.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Military exercise bears close resemblance to Japanese security concerns

A military exercise named Dawn Blitz 2013 started on June 11 and will conclude June 28. The multi-national exercise will include the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Japan in simulating an amphibious landing on an island staged off the coast of California.

V-22 Ospreys approaching JS Shimokita while underway. DoD photo.
The exercise is useful for all nations participating, but for Japan it bears a striking resemblance to one of Tokyo’s current strategic environment threats. Retaking an island alongside an American battle group will be a useful skill to practice in case the security situation in the East and South China Seas boils over. China and Japan have experienced significant tensions regarding the possession of multiple islands in those seas.

Practising to retake an island from an enemy force will not be directly relevant to either New Zealand or Canada, but both the United States and Japan are potentially looking at employing this skill in the near future. If everything goes to plan, they won’t have to. But preparing for this type of conflict is prudent and fits with present Japanese remilitarisation efforts.

With Japan growing in strength and putting more military resources into countering Beijing in Japan’s territorial waters, their inclusion in Dawn Blitz 2013 is keeping in line with their drive for greater interoperability with the US Navy. Importantly, the exercise will test the cohesion of the entire Japanese armed forces, a skill set that is presently lacking in Japanese efforts in their maritime sphere.

Japan is looking at a number of years before it can boast a comprehensive military force which can interact seamlessly across the different branches and project sufficient force into its near-abroad. The new government is pushing to bolster the Japanese navy with the purchase of modern ships and advanced defence systems.

Participating in practical exercises like Dawn Blitz 2013 will add crucial skills for Japan’s commanders and also foster a working knowledge of interacting with the US Navy in preparation for potential joint Japan-US patrols in the future.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Iranian elections and the new president's obstacles

Iranian reformist candidate Cleric Hassan Rouhani on June 15 was announced the winner of Iran's 11th presidential election. Mr Rouhani won 50.7 percent of the vote, avoiding a run-off election. He was one of eight candidates hand-picked for the presidential ballot by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The new president is likely to closely adhere to Ayatollah Khamenei's policies and continue to tentatively reengage with the West.

Now that the elections are over, and the violence and demonstrations which ignited following Iran’s previous elections have been avoided, Iran can step back to get a good look at their new president. Mr Rouhani surprised many international observers, and those following the pre-election polls, because he appeared to come out of nowhere to clasp victory.  

Election polls can be dubious at the best of times, and Iranian polls would find little comparison in the western world in terms of accuracy. As with many elections around the world, accusations of shadow support and backroom dealings surrounded each of the candidates as the Iranian election campaign progressed. And a common supposition abounded that the Supreme Leader was the true puppet master who would never let an election pass without some form of central, clerical control.

But in the end, Iranians conducted a relatively free and fair election this week. The result really does appear to have been decided on the day with Mr Rouhani’s win appeasing the electorate for the time-being.

Mr Rouhani’s victory over his more hardline opponents can be partially explained by the affinity Iran’s reformist movement felt with him. The recent arguments amongst his hardline opponents likely split their votes critically, leaving Mr Rouhani with a good chance to claim victory. It was the factionalised bickering during the last four years between outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Ayatollah Khamenei which characterised the Iranian state’s political face in spite of many other pressing concerns.

During his long, turbulent tenure at the helm of the Iranian state, Mr Ahmadinejad gradually divorced himself from the Supreme Leader by revamping the powers of the presidential seat away from the clerical elite and towards figures in the political sphere and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The resulting infighting at the top levels between Iranian political and religious circles essentially nurtured a growing support base from the clerical establishment favouring moderates like Hassan Rouhani.

The Ayatollahs are still firmly in control of Iran, although a surprisingly robust democratic political system exists in parallel. Not wishing to see their power diminish by the hand of an irritated President Ahmadinejad, and yet equally concerned that a reformist movement led by the people might present an equivalent threat if permitted to grow, Mr Rouhani is probably a good compromise and bulwark on both accounts for the clerical elite.

There is a desire from both Mr Rouhani and his clerical supporters to maintain the balance of theocracy and democracy in Iran. Mr Rouhani took part in the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and enjoyed close ties to Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic. And even though his victory is partly built on voter support for his moderate and reformist ideals, Mr Rouhani will not be nearly as rambunctious as his predecessor and he can be expected to take seriously the advice of the clerical regime without compromising too much of his clearly popular policies that ultimately put him in power.

Consolidating control over the Iranian political system – having been somewhat diluted over the last four years - will be the top priority of the clerical regime. Ideally, from the clerical regime’s perspective, the political trajectory President Ahmadinejad set the country on should be brought back into line with Mr Rouhani in power. Many in Iran are nervous of the power the IRGC has gained over the years during Mr Ahmadinejad’s presidency and would like to see the leash of those military-political figures tightened.

Just as important for the Iranian political and clerical elites will be the dire state of Iran’s economy. Iran has been subjected to crippling sanctions by the United States and other European nations for a number of years in response to the controversial Iranian nuclear program. However, sanctions on Iran’s primary export of crude oil have not been completely effective because India and China are refusing to recognise the sanction’s legitimacy and have continued purchasing oil from Iran for their hungry nations.

But even with these legitimate sales of Iranian oil - and the superbly functioning black market and smuggling program - the country has faced intense economic and fiscal obstacles over the past few years. Iran’s new president takes the stage in the middle of rising inflation and an economic crawl. If the Iranian economy is to be revived, the new president will have to sit down with the United States to negotiate how Iran can plug back into the world system without losing its strategic and regional influence or giving up important ground in regards to their nuclear program.

What Mr Rouhani brings to power is a new face for negotiations around Iran’s nuclear weapons program. He has said he would seek “constructive interaction with the world”, a statement which will be met with understandable scepticism by observing Western countries. After all, previous Iranian leaders have promised similar things in the past. But there might be good reasons to believe Mr Rouhani clutches a brighter torchlight than most.
The former nuclear negotiator
Hassan Rouhani as been elected
president of Iran - Photograph: Xinhua /Landov/Barcroft Media

During the presidency of Mohammed Khatami, Mr Rouhani was the country’s chief nuclear negotiator. He has always defended Iran’s nuclear program, but his time as negotiator from 2003 – 2005 stands in stark contrast to the stalemates and filibustering surrounding recent rounds of unproductive talks with the West. Mr Rouhani’s ability to balance conservative and reformist ideals, with an understanding that issuing rhetorically fierce demands to the West stifles the conversation, actually bought Iran and the United States closer to a deal than they have ever been. Mr Rouhani is remembered from this period as being “extremely professional”, according to former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

The new president brings not only a deep understanding and experience of geopolitical issues to his position, but also an appreciation for Iran’s slipping control of Mesopotamia and the Levant. Sunni Muslims have reacted violently to Shiite Iran’s increased political presence in Iraq and Syria, while the Arab Gulf States have been quietly working to undermine Iranian influence throughout the region for a number of years.

Recently, 4000 IRGC troops were sent to Syria to fight alongside Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime against the largely Sunni rebels. Without Mr al Assad’s regime leading Syria, Iran would lose an important lynchpin in its political influence in the Middle East, so propping him up has morphed into an obsession for Tehran. The incoming president will likely continue to support Mr al Assad’s regime and work closely with Moscow to further this objective.

While a good deal of significant obstacles faces Mr Rouhani in his first term as president, it is at home that his attentions will mainly be focused. Before Iran has historically felt comfortable with extending power from its upland mountains, the Iranian economy and population must be working as one entity. If Mr Rouhani can connect the disparate elements of the military, the political establishment, and the Iranian people with the powers of the theocratic regime, he should be able to negotiate with the West much more coherently and revive the Iranian economy with greater efficiency.

It will take a president with immense diplomatic skill to deal with the IRGC and the marginalised regular army in a way in which both institutions’ interests are maintained. Mr Rouhani will also need a similarly sweet touch to balance the overarching clerical regime with an increasingly educated and young broader populace who have little memory of the Islamic Revolution and are looking to bring Iran into a more secular era. And it will take patience to ensure infighting between clerics does not escalate and end up undermining Mr Rouhani’s efforts elsewhere.

In this sense, the scorecard for Iran’s new president has already been drawn and it is now up to Mr Rouhani to make sure he ticks as many of the boxes as he can before his term is through. It remains to be seen just how much change Mr Rouhani can truly bring for Iran in the long term. Certainly, until he can consolidate his presidential prerogatives and begin to implement some of his changes, very little change to the status quo can be expected in the short term. 

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Turkey struggles to direct its historical opening

Turkey has been slowly embracing old ideological connections in the Arab world and Central Asia but, after ten years of fairly steady economic growth, the nation could have hit a significant obstacle on its long road back to being a robust regional power as unrest spreads in the country.  

At this point, almost everyone listening to even a modicum of international news would have heard about the anti-government protests occurring throughout Turkey. Aside from the regional implications, these demonstrations offer a chance to discuss the rising centrality of Turkey in today’s world, but also the many hurdles it faces in its search for reinvigorated clout.

Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan - Reuters

Despite the economic success Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan built in Turkey since 2002, the protests will weaken his government somewhat and could delay some of his more ambitious reforms to bring Turkey more in line with European economic ideals. The demonstrations could threaten the Turkish economy at a crucial time when emerging market economies are facing serious difficulties.

The mostly young, demonstrating Turks congregating in Istanbul’s Taksim Square waving banners and calling for Prime Minister Erdogan’s resignation know there is a balance to be found between their country’s European ambitions, and as a geographic link to the Asian landmass which brings a colourful historic baggage and responsibilities.  

The demonstrations also point out that while Mr Erdogan has established pro-Western and reformist policies - factors which have deeply impressed Western governments - his government still leans toward an unsavoury Islamic authoritarianism that could spook investors. These deep but clashing ideological connections to the Middle East and Central Asia reflect the natural geographic reality of Turkey and the historic tension between the West and Asia which has framed the Turkish nation for thousands of years.

It is as the connection between Europe and Asia that places Turkey in the bind it finds itself in today. Not only does it straddle two continents, Turkey juggles two major, but very different, worldviews and systems of government. The underlying tension of these two worlds has frustrated the cosmopolitan and media-savvy populace and caused a backlash from those wanting a more secular government and more freedom.

This central message of the activists ironically reflects long-standing Turkish policies of aspiring to European-style liberalism and free living. While Turkey’s government reached perhaps too far with some recent conservative policies, the protests in Turkey shout to the world not that Turkey is backward and oppressive, as some other Asian and Middle Eastern powers have been, but that Turkey is a sophisticated country with a clear desire to embrace their historic role in the region.

A thread underlying the troubles in the Middle East and Central Asia over the past decade or so can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire. Once the Turkish domain fell apart after the disastrous close of World War I, the people it previously governed were suddenly without a central authority.

The world the Ottomans created was certainly artificial, but it was more structured and stable than the states conjured by the Europeans. The constant bubbling of unrest in the Middle East and Central Asia since that time are manifestations of the same unresolved problem: no one really figured out what to do with the Ottoman Empire when it collapsed.

Turkish forefather Mustafa Kemal Ataturk attempted to fix this problem from the Turkish point of view, but he needed to start at home on the Anatolian Peninsula first. The core of his policies was to bring Turkey together under a single flag to avoid the harms of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire.

Today, Prime Minister Erdogan is transforming this core tenant to recognise the different groups inside Turkey and plans to change the political system radically. But Mr Erdogan’s vision for a redefined Turkey is clearly ruffling feathers. Turkey is a bridge, not an island, and the Turks understand their central role in the region and wish to embrace it.

Although Turkey has consciously conducted its foreign affairs in a strict non-interventionist and even placating manner, its rising power and growing regional presence is forcing Ankara to reconsider how it deals with its neighbours as well. This is because Turkey, despite their ambitions in Europe, remains an extremely important power for the Middle East and Asia.

Interestingly, during the Arab Spring of 2011, Turkey’s government structure was raised as an adoptable example of a properly healthy mix of Islam and secular liberalism for those Arab countries emerging from the rubble of revolution. Seeing the thousands of young Turks protest throughout the country must be sending a vastly different message to international observers, and especially foreign investors.

However, the world is also seeing a real, solid display of connection and inclusion by a large group of Turks for the direction they want their country to travel. The demonstrators have their reasons for acting now, but the truth is that Turkey is today a strong nation and getting stronger. It has risen from the doldrums of an economy with zero growth back in 2002 - when Mr Erdogan’s government came into power - through a steady growth of between 4.5 and 8.2 percent a year.

This has been a remarkable turnaround for the once-mournful country. Mr Erdogan’s moderate Islamic government has transformed Turkey from the unwelcome, but still crushingly accurate, appellation as the “sick man of Europe” into a dynamo. Turkey has struggled in the past century to integrate into the European Union, but reforms are slowly renovating Turkey into an economic powerhouse that is capturing the attention of European leaders.

But Turkey is still a shadow of its former Ottoman self and has a long way to go. Culturally, if the sultans of old could return, they probably wouldn’t recognise the people living on the Anatolian peninsula anymore.

Mr Erdogan’s firebrand personality which had him standing up to the United States and Israel, along with his strong-arm economic reforms reinvigorating the Turkish economy, are beginning to tire some Turks. If Mr Erdogan deals with the protests astutely, Turkey could yet be a shining example of a healthy mix of Islam and Western democracy. And a more modern Turkey could emerge from this unrest as the country reawakens to embrace its geographic and historical opportunities.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

How Chinese expansion is fueling Japan's military growth

According to a visiting Japanese military academic, Japan must learn to rely less on assistance from the United States and take personal responsibility of its territorial waters and islands in response to increasingly aggressive Chinese movements in the East China Sea.

Discussing the complex relationship between Beijing and Tokyo in a refreshingly frank seminar at Auckland University this week, Professor Noboru Yamaguchi of the National Defence Academy of Japan highlighted the centrality of a strong Japan to ration Chinese expansion.

A Chinese maritime surveillance vessel, foreground,
sails alongside a Japan Coast Guard patrol ship. - Asahi Shimbun file photo
When questioned about whether this personal responsibility would entail Tokyo investing in a larger fleet of warships, Professor Yamaguchi’s answered that Japan’s military must be able to counter any threat to its territorial integrity. Japan’s navy already sails one of the strongest fleets in the world, despite constitutional restrictions on military spending and capabilities.

While the trend of China’s rise in the Asia Pacific has helped invigorate the region economically, Professor Yamaguchi emphasised the importance of maintaining a positive-sum game with Beijing, one in which all sides benefit, while avoiding the slide into a potentially catastrophic zero-sum slugging match with the potential to immolate the entire region.

Some of these flashpoints for Japan and China are already making international headlines this year. Contested islands in the South and East China Seas, as well as access to those bodies of water, have oscillated between simmering and barely contained. The Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese) are a particularly fragile flashpoint with seemingly equal national and strategic interest for both Tokyo and Beijing.

The fragility of this particular situation is increased by a number of factors. These include Chinese People’s Liberation Army - Navy (PLA-N) exercises near the islands, the constant Chinese surveillance over-flights in Japanese airspace, and fiery rhetoric from the Chinese government. And just like Professor Yamaguchi, Japanese defence experts worry that China’s military power might be becoming unmanageable.

In response, both the Japanese and Chinese navies in the East China Sea are conducting increasingly violent and active manoeuvres to thwart each other. And the constant games are extremely exhausting. Although the Japanese government had no problem with Soviet warships moving in and through the East China Sea during the Cold War, Japanese interactions with the PLA-N are markedly different.

Tokyo also realises the Unites States does not wish to spend a great amount of effort assisting Japan’s tenuous territorial disputes. Officially, the United States - bound by the Japanese constitution to defend Japan in place of a robust Japanese military - takes no position on disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. But Washington respects its responsibility to Japan, so long as a number of conditions are met.

First, to intervene in any dispute over the islands, Washington must be convinced the islands are under Japanese control, which they presently are not. Second, Washington must conduct any intervention jointly with the Japanese military, a task which would be heavily weighted towards the capabilities of the U.S. Navy rather than the much smaller Japanese navy.

And third, the islands must be under armed attack. This condition does not recognise the recent episodes of Chinese civilians landing on the windswept rocks to plant flags and chant Chinese nationalist songs. The provocations must be more dynamic if the United States is to be dragged into the fray.

But the dynamism of the region is quickly becoming a festering wound. Professor Yamaguchi, who has since retired from the Japan Self Defence Force, pointed to Chinese helicopters flying within a few hundred metres of Japanese warships, and fixed-wing surveillance aircraft penetrating Japanese-controlled airspace near disputed islands as examples which are particularly nerve-wracking for Japanese military members.

Because the disputed islands sit so far from either Japanese or Chinese land-based early warning radar stations – about 200 kilometres for Japan and about 300 kilometres for China – Professor Yamaguchi describes the need for constant surveillance from both nations. Presently, this job is slightly simpler for Japan, due to its relative proximity, than it is for China. However China’s speedy development of an indigenous aircraft carrier program could change the balance of power in the region and offer Beijing more options when it comes to projecting force or protecting lines of communication into the Pacific Basin.
As an example of this trend, a Chinese aircraft penetrated Japanese airspace a few months ago. Japanese ships near the islands raised the alarm. And it took 15 to 20 minutes for Japanese fighter jets to arrive and interdict the Chinese aircraft. By that time the Chinese plane had already departed. Professor Yamaguchi explains that had the surveillance aircraft been operating instead from the deck of a functional Chinese aircraft carrier, a similar Japanese response would be diplomatically impossible, not to mention potentially deadly.

Professor Yamaguchi also described the reported targeting of a Japanese warship with a Chinese “fire-control radar” – a target locking system used to direct the strike of weapons – as a remarkable, and hopefully non-repeatable, episode of today’s high stakes games on the high seas. When Tokyo officially confronted Beijing about the incident, Chinese government officials flatly denied the accusation. The professor cheerfully described the denial as a heartening sign, indicating China does not wish malice on Japan.

He explained that if Beijing chose instead to embrace the overtly hostile military action while displaying little concern for Japanese indignation, then relations between Beijing and Tokyo would be dangerously different. Professor Yamaguchi indicates that economic cooperation between China and Japan, rather than belligerency and conflict, is still very important for Beijing and currently overrides any desires to ratchet tensions higher.

Professor Yamaguchi described himself as an optimist, and views United States President Obama’s first official foreign visit in 2008, when he chose to go to Japan, as a clear sign that the Asia Pacific region will be crucially important to the world in the future. The key to a peaceful century is finding areas of cooperation, rather than tension, between the larger powers. He believes this is eminently possible, so long as trust and transparency remain high.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Intelligence agencies need our help, not our scorn - Part 1

The person apparently responsible for leaking the recent United States National Security Agency (NSA) PRISM project has conducted a film interview with a reporter from the Guardian newspaper. In the interview, Edward Snowden – the presumed “leaker” – talks about his motives for releasing the top secret information to the public.

Initially, Mr Snowden makes it very clear he views the government in a fundamentally incorrect and unhelpful way. As pointed out in previous posts, governments are made up of individual people following certain flexible rules of administration to discover the best, most prudent path for their society. 

Governments are not an overarching construction devoid of human emotion or bereft of mistakes and foibles. The problems facing each person in life are also experienced inside governments, with the proviso that more resources can be marshalled to deal with the issues at their root cause and hopefully repair or redirect the societal woes.

So how does this pertain to spying? In regards to intelligence agencies, the world’s oldest profession will always be an integral part of a mature nation-state or society when it comes to figuring out the best path for organising society. 

No matter what one’s philosophical or ideological position, it always will be necessary to know what is going on over the hill or in the other camp. There is nothing more important in statecraft than having the best knowledge possible about what could be coming next. A leader that doesn’t want to know, or can’t know, what is coming next because of a personal belief system or ideology is irresponsible and will not last long in office. 

This leader will suffer from a dearth of intelligence, and will bring suffering on the society they govern as a result, because even if this leader does not want to gather intelligence, their rivals will have no such qualms. And superior intelligence always wins.

What Mr Snowden does not seem to understand is that one of the greatest and most responsible acts for United States Presidents - or any world leader – is to develop their country’s intelligence assets during their time in control. 

It is constantly surprising just how important a robust and far-reaching intelligence apparatus is for almost every aspect of modern society. Economics is enhanced with knowledge of the best move to take in trade discussions. Military might is magnified by clear predictive information. Societal needs can be understood and dissected. 

This knowledge does not need to be gathered aggressively or against domestic laws. Intelligence is a process of understanding how the world works and finding the best path forward from the view of a particular society.

Far from being an excuse for the revealed NSA program, if any of history’s great leaders had the ability to develop the tools that the United States intelligence community possesses today, they would not hesitate to develop them. The reason is simple: the good of a society is bigger than any one individual. This is not an Orwellian dystopia. This is statecraft in a pure form, and every nation does what is best for the love of one’s own.

The principle obstacle for any intelligence collection and analysis is, and has always been, the staccato and fluctuating completeness of information. All the puzzle pieces are never spread on the table patiently waiting for the analyst to come along and put them together. The information gathered is always partial and the skill of the analyst is in locating patterns without the full understanding of where everything fits. 

There is no outline to begin with, the connecting curves don’t always intuitively go together, and the hues on the puzzle pieces generally don’t make sense. The box is no help, because there is no box – the puzzle never came with a box. The pieces just started appearing spontaneously and now people want to know if it’s a picture of a dog or a spacecraft.

The only thing making this impossible job easier is the amount of potential pieces of the puzzle on the table. The more information an analyst has, the more refined and nuanced is the summary and guidance and the clearer they can display the pattern pulled from the noise. The pattern might be incorrect, and generally is, but the more data arriving on the table makes the final analysis stronger. This is where the usefulness of the PRISM project appears.

Two great advantages to intelligence gathering over the recent decades are instantaneous communication and widespread inclusion. The first is the spread of the internet and the dominance of this new medium over ever-greater facets of our lives. 

Almost every person on the planet with access to electricity can now use a communications tool so vast and awesome that kings and queens would never have let it out of their palaces. Almost no one uses land-line phones or physical postage to communicate with their fellow humans in the 21st Century. Everyone who can, uses the internet. This has created an enormous amount of inherently accessible information that intelligence agencies are ideally suited to gather to better fit the pieces of their puzzle together.

The second is that the very people being targeted by intelligence agencies are no different to their peers and fellow citizens in how they communicate. Criminals, terrorists, and enemy agencies all rely on the internet in some form to go about their business. 

There’s really no escaping the lure and efficiency of the World Wide Web. Military minds talk about the “domain” of cyberspace in the same breath as the domains of sea, air, land, and space. The way they see the patterns of human interaction in the online spectrum points to the pervasiveness of the internet and the undeniability of this technology. 

And because those who would do us harm are using the same domain as the intelligence and law enforcement agencies in their communications, it makes perfect sense for a responsible leader to funnel the resources of agencies towards developing a dynamic process for monitoring the human animal’s most prolific means of communication.

Intelligence agencies need our help, not our scorn - Part 2

It might seem like the process of PRISM is entirely too vast and too invasive for a democratic society. Surely it should be stopped before the Hobbes’ Leviathan gobbles everything under its mighty shadow. But flowery language aside, the mere fact the NSA created a tool like PRISM underscores just how reliant we’ve become on the internet as more than just a tool, but a way of life. 

Particular generations are more likely to interact with the internet on an immersive scale than others, but almost every citizen in the United States and other Western countries use the tool daily. For some people, every detail of their digital life sits vulnerably on servers located in cool rooms of cities and towns with names they probably couldn’t pronounce. 

This is why people in the United States are in various stages of anger at what Mr Snowden revealed about NSA over the weekend. Even in New Zealand, when news of this country’s equivalent signals intelligence (SIGINT) agency - the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) - were shown to also be spying on New Zealanders, the reaction was very similar to the current feeling in America. 

It’s not that people are angry at the United States government or the New Zealand parliament for letting the spy agencies run amok and become “too powerful”. The citizens know the data those agencies are gathering are private and potentially confidential.

Hidden among the outrage is a psychological pattern which needs to be addressed. Mr Snowden talks in his interview about the threat of governments using the information they gather to indict the average, law-abiding citizen with arbitrary convictions and crimes. 

He points out that too much power can mean any individual is watched constantly while all information is stored indefinitely. And if they should ever step out of line, the government can bring out their fat folder of misdeeds to deliver a hammer blow to an otherwise gentle person’s freedom. What stands out in this way of thinking is a manifestation of narcissism which has insidiously latched itself to modern Western society.

To think that a powerful intelligence agency like the NSA is vacuuming every available piece of internet paraphernalia, analysing that information, and storing it in vast warehouses for effective eternity, just so they can build a criminal profile against you on the off chance that you become a suspected “enemy of the state”, or even just to capriciously target you, is Class A vanity. 

The NSA, in all its glory, is nowhere near capable of keeping track of 300 million Americans (and growing); let alone 7 billion human beings. The amount of data cascading into the storage banks in Bluffdale and Virginia from wiretaps already in place before PRISM, is too great to sort out into neat little boxes with human names.

The American and New Zealand SIGINT agencies do not care about the average citizen. The last thing an analyst needs is a false lead when they are on the clock racing to uncover real plots to kill their fellow citizens. 

The very reason programs like PRISM exist is because these plots are often fleshed out, communicated, and conducted using the tool of the internet. Terrorists and criminals are savvy to the power of technology, just like the average citizen.

The problem for an intelligence agency is the difficulty of spotting the patterns in the galaxy of meaningless noise. That noise is an email to your wife, telling her you’ll be late home from work. It’s the funny cat picture you clicked on while browsing on a lunch break. It’s the Facebook post you wrote complaining about the air conditioning in the café. Sure, these digital footprints now sit on an NSA server bank somewhere, but the analysts don’t care. What they’re looking for is far more important than the red light you just sped through or the tax return you filed slightly misleadingly.

NSA analysts are pulling all the data they can get their greedy hands on because it heightens their chances for spotting a threat or a pattern amongst the noise. 

If the bags of rubbish pulled from the tip are full of useless scraps with only a snippet of useful information, doesn’t retaining the rubbish bag make sense for a policeman if he’s looking for a killer? Will the policeman care about the rest of the rubbish once the snippet of information has been gleaned and added to the pattern? 

In the same way your emails about football practice mean nothing to the analyst searching for the fragments of words between terrorists, the policeman cares not a jot about the scrunched chocolate wrapper next to the rotting apple core.

Intelligence agencies need our help, not our scorn - Part 3

But the ignorance of Mr Snowden’s reasons for leaking the PRISM program to the public pales in comparison to the damage he might have caused to intelligence collection in the American spy community. As a veteran of the agency, he must know about the importance of secrecy regarding a process of intelligence gathering lest it enable the enemy to alter its methods of communication. 

Foreign spies and terrorists have walked free from capture even though the evidence to convict them was extremely watertight. Because the evidence was gathered by a secret process, which if it were divulged in public courtrooms could damage even more important missions, the case, critical as it might be, was discarded in favour of operational security.

In another example of operational security, during the chase for Osama bin Laden and the other members of his Al Qaeda cadre, the American Press followed the game very closely for years. Journalists wrote gripping stories about the hunt for the world’s most notorious terrorists, using information from official or semi-official government intelligence sources. 

Sometimes, like the PRISM journalist at the Guardian, the information was released outside of official channels and caused a stir in U.S. government circles. One particularly damaging leak, which may have filtered down from an official source in an “off-the-record” interview, is the story of Al Qaeda’s usage of satellite phones.

An American newspaper reported the NSA was able to listen in on communications between Al Qaeda members when they used their satellite phones to talk to each other. The phone numbers had either been discovered by intelligence assets on the ground near Al Qaeda members, or discovered obliquely using other methods of SIGINT interception by NSA listeners. 

The terrorist’s satellite phones, due to their mobile nature, were also able to be tracked by the NSA and a great deal of information was collected. Unfortunately for the hunters in the NSA, a journalist, either misunderstanding the importance of operational security or wishing to make a mark and a wad of cash, decided to publish the story in 1998.

Instead of being confined to an American readership, Osama bin Laden or one of his aides read a copy of the newspaper and digested the article. The Al Qaeda leader promptly discarded his satellite phone and apparently instructed his entire extremist group to do the same. 

Instantly, the single best method of tracking the terrorist group disappeared and the NSA went dark on bin Laden. The story in the newspaper was interesting, and it helped sell copies, but the operational security of this particular NSA program was irreparably destroyed.

In a very similar way, the PRISM revelations damage operational security and distort the idea of protecting one’s fellow citizens. Mr Snowden understood the consequences of his actions, yet completed his adventure regardless. In wishing to embody the part of the hero and valiant whistleblower, Mr Snowden reveals he cares very little for the people he proposes to protect and serve. 

In the video of his interview, Mr Snowden fantasises about being chased by various intelligence agencies for the rest of his life. His self-imposed isolation and banishment is worn as a rugged badge of pseudo-honour. But he and I clearly have extremely different views on how digital intelligence collection assists a modern, democratic state.

It’s hard to say what the world’s extremist groups are saying about PRISM in light of the leak, but they probably won’t be using the internet in the same way anymore. It’s up to America and the Western world to decide whether Mr Snowden’s noble actions to inform the public are worth the price of limiting intelligence tools designed specifically to protect us from the worst kind of people.

I don’t blame Mr Snowden for what he did, nor do I apportion blame to the journalists helping him release the information. But I do urge the public to better understand why intelligence services are important and why breaking operational security can be so incredibly damaging for every person in a modern, democratic society. Instead of hand-wringing over a loss of “privacy”, perhaps it’s better to take a long look at how much of our lives we needlessly turn digital.

Finally, there needs to be a greater amount of trust for our intelligence organisations. They are filled with people just like us, wanting to use their limited time on earth to help protect their democratic society with whatever skills they have. Collectively they wield great power, and history warns us of the temptations of such power. But if we cannot trust the best and brightest of our society to protect and serve, then how poorly does this reflect on our society?

The government will continue to develop intelligence tools to monitor and guard the way of life of the future. As new technologies emerge, new intelligence tools will be produced to leverage those machines. 

Modern Western states are not the dystopias of 20th century fictions, and despite the hair-pulling predictions of civil rights activists, they are not likely to exist in the future either. Let’s put a little faith in our intelligence services to do the moral thing. They need our feedback on how much protection and freedom we want today more than ever.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

We need to talk about digital spying in the modern age - Part 1

Americans woke up on Friday June 7 to multiple articles in the Guardian and Wall Street Journal newspapers revealing that the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) has gained access to some of the world’s largest digital corporations and their storage servers.

As far as the reports and leaked documents show, this access is extremely broad covering everything from Microsoft servers to Facebook data. Everything from file transfers between users and login details, to voice and video communication is being both monitored and stored by the NSA at a cost of about US$20 million per year.

 According to U.S. state officials, the data being gathered is too vast for on-going surveillance of every internet user and the information collected is simply being stored in huge data warehouses. Instead of a “Big Brother” state, the data is being employed to assist in creating patterns to trace individuals suspected of terrorism or criminal activities in the United States. This program of collection has been codenamed PRISM and has been in operation since perhaps 2007.

The extent of the NSA dragnet operations is ruffling feathers in the United States. The corporations reportedly included in the program are: Facebook, Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft, Skype, Apple, Youtube, Paltalk, and AOL. All these digital systems are in heavy use by everyday United States citizens, not to mention by almost everybody in the world with an internet connection.

Before this piece continues, it is very important to remember that freedom does not mean people can yell “fire” in a crowded theatre, to paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. The same goes for the internet. Just because you can write or say anything you want on the internet, does not mean you should. There are plenty of nefarious criminal groups - and even malicious nation states – already waiting to suck up your personal details to use in ways the NSA cannot even dream. And they’ve been there, stealing your privacy, for a lot longer than the PRISM project.

Kids in schools should be taught as a foundational life-skill that in everything you do on the internet, you must assume your personal data security is already compromised. Even with encryption, the most secure way to encrypt files is offline. There are no safe places on the internet. If this is understood at even a cursory level, the whole mind-set of privacy in the digital world changes.

Consecutive U.S. administrations and NSA directors assured their public that the role of the National Security Agency is to monitor and gather information from foreign countries for the benefit of the United States. They are a spy organisation and the collection of data from U.S. citizens has been stressed time and again as being outside the gamut of the world’s largest signals intelligence (SIGINT) agency. However, in light of last week’s revelations, it is becoming clear the NSA’s collection methods could be vacuuming up American data as well.

From an American civil liberties perspective, this is not what they were led to believe. In fact it is the complete opposite. For a long time, rumours abounded of the dangerous reality that NSA and other intelligence agencies monitor American communications, but little evidence existed to back those claims.

Looking at the leaked PRISM document, it is now clear those rumours were mostly accurate, as the first corporation to join PRISM was back in 2007. So presumably, the “privacy” which is so vehemently being defended today has been compromised for almost seven years. One wonders whether Americans felt violated for each of those seven years, or whether their lives were perfectly fine up until the leaked NSA document told them they were being spied on the whole time.

The amount of data being collected is so great that the NSA is already building new warehouses like the one in Bluffdale, Utah. This facility will have the reported capacity to store all internet traffic, probably excluding video and voice files, for at least the next 100 years – apparently even compensating for the trends of increased traffic amounts over that time.

According to James Bamford, the foremost expert on NSA, the agency is developing computers with mind blowing speeds to process all this information. These computers are so fast they “clocked in at 1.75 petaflops, officially becoming the world’s fastest computer in 2009”. And yet the agency “is not satisfied with breaking the petaflop barrier. Its next goal is to reach exaflop speed, one quintillion (1018) operations a second, and eventually zettaflop (1021) and yottaflop.”

These speeds are phenomenal, and will potentially make mincemeat of the internet information flowing into NSA like so much water over the Niagara Falls. And just like the waterfall, it is difficult to see where privacy starts and anonymity ends. If the NSA is collecting data from American citizens alongside foreign internet users, then the time is fast approaching for a conversation about just how far Americans are willing to allow their security apparatus to reach to protect their society. As a civilian agency working for the good of the average United States citizen, the NSA is a servant of the people. It exists to protect them from all those who would do evil. The question is: how much protection do Americans want?

Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

We need to talk about digital spying in the modern age - Part 2

The reality is, the kind of threat most Americans – and anybody in the developed world – faces does not come from international terror groups anymore and probably not from nation states either. Most countries are more than happy to rhetorically complain and go through the motions of preparing for war without actually moving in that direction.

The benefits of peace are too great to risk throwing it all away over pseudo-nationalism or petty territorial disputes. While stateless groups, such as Al Qaeda, are so severely degraded and depleted following their evisceration at the hands of Western military and intelligence assets, that today there is no such thing as an international terrorist organisation which even comes close to those of the late 1990’s or early 2000’s.

Instead, the greatest threat to the Western way of life - not simply confined to America in this case - is the very citizens residing inside Western countries. Attacks over the past few years in the United States and Britain alone have been conducted almost exclusively by natural born or adopted citizens of those countries.

This fact conjures a terribly difficult conundrum for Western intelligence agencies. On the one hand they have to carry out a mandate to protect the lives of their fellow citizens. And in the good old days, when threats emerged principally from overseas locations (putting aside a certain amount of homegrown terrorist acts like the Unabomber, Basque separatists, or the IRA), it was relatively simple to aggressively monitor and collect information about those groups or individuals and hopefully interdict their attacks. On the other hand, those same intelligence agencies have been paying attention to the trends of terrorism and wound up looking in their own backyards instead on the hunt to protect their fellow citizens.

It might appear to be different, but the threat is the same. People are still willing to sacrifice their lives to do as much damage to Western targets as possible to further their ideological or religious cause. These people exist all over the planet and probably always will. Almost every day some sort of terrorist attack occurs somewhere. Countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Mali, Somalia, Pakistan, Russia, and the Philippines are considered “normal” places for terrorism. Only snippets of airtime in Western media are devoted to coverage of these atrocities which regularly kill people in the double or triple figures. Yet when a bomb detonates in Boston in the United States, killing 3 people, the coverage continues for weeks.

Of course, when a terrible event occurs closer to the home ground, the reaction from the American media will be more pronounced. This is a given. But when the trend towards attacks emanating from inside Western countries – so-called “grassroots terrorism” – becomes more visible and obvious, the agencies tasked with protecting their advanced and democratic societies are faced with tough choices. No longer can they say terrorism is a foreign problem, when it is very clear many attacks are perpetrated by Western citizens living sometimes just down the road. Things have changed immensely since Al Qaeda struck New York in 2001.

After the 9/11 attacks the NSA was asked by then U.S. President George W. Bush to ramp up its monitoring of the United States to ensure against a follow-on attack. The dangerous powers temporarily given to the NSA in those hectic days were rescinded somewhat as time marched on and the threat of more Al Qaeda attacks dissipated.

The feeling at the time was that although the terrorist threat against America was real, the equally dangerous threats against freedom and privacy of the average American was also very real if surveillance continued unabated. A decade ago, it was quickly realised most of the people wishing to do harm to the United States were actually thousands of miles away and entirely within the operational limits of normal, pre-9/11 NSA SIGINT collection. So the digital ears were once again pointed away from the continental United States.

However, as the struggle against global terror evolved, those same ears were picking up rumours of United States citizens plotting to conduct terrible attacks inside their own country. Many of these attackers made contact with foreign members of terrorist groups for training or ideological support, but ultimately their drive and motivation was self-sufficient. Such individuals are inherently difficult to track and locate because they do not communicate their plans with others. Realising the trend of terrorism was turning towards this particular style of militancy, intelligence agencies scrambled to update their surveillance measures leading to programs like the recently revealed PRISM and others.

Thankfully, many of the would-be grassroots terrorists in the United States and other Western countries have been generally incompetent to the point of farce. Many of them deserve the sarcastic nomenclature of “Kramer jihadists”, after the bumbling Seinfeld character. Unfortunately, in preferring to maximise their secrecy and decrease the chance of discovery, grassroots terrorists usually sacrifice the benefits of training with fellow ideologues and learn the specific skills necessary to carry out terrorist attacks. Their inability to carry out the simplest attacks and constant overestimation of their operational skills is one of the major reasons so few attacks have occurred in the West.

Even though the NSA has been collecting information from all over the internet, it is unlikely that they can claim full responsibility for many successful interdictions of grassroots terrorism. The very nature of the NSA and intelligence work is secretive, so we will likely never fully know the success or extent of their surveillance measures. And the chances are high that the “Five Eyes” SIGINT group (United States, Canada, United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia) has broken many more plots against the West than will ever be released to the public.

Part 1, Part 3, Part 4

We need to talk about digital spying in the modern age - Part 3

According to U.S. state officials, programs like PRISM have apparently already yielded victories over terrorists inside the United States. This offers an explanation as to why U.S. President Barack Obama has not only maintained the surveillance program set up by his predecessor, but expanded it. Mr Obama understands that the system is necessary and gets results. But, like the Woolwich attack in the United Kingdom and the Boston bombings in the United States, some of these grassroots plots are going to make it through the present configuration of the wall of surveillance.

As ex-Director of the National Security Agency Micheal Hayden points out, transnational terrorists are followed and monitored in a very similar way to a game of football. Two sides consisting of many players in different roles compete strategically to break the other’s system to “score” and hopefully come closer to beating the opposing side - either ideologically or tactically. In this process, the chances of success for a state intelligence apparatus are much greater than those of a stateless transnational terrorist group. 
As we’ve seen in the past decade or so, the state has the resources and ability to break the groups opposing it. The terrorist group needs to be extremely lucky all the time, whereas the state intelligence agencies have the upper hand and need to be unlucky only once. If enough pressure is enacted on terrorist groups, the game really is stacked against them.

But when it comes to grassroots terrorism and home-grown militancy, the chances for success are directly inverted. The state intelligence apparatus needs to be lucky all the time, while the grassroots terrorists need to spot a gap in the wall only once. The nature of a grassroots terrorist is that they typically do not discuss their devious plans with many other people and are careful to hide their position on the terrorist attack cycle until it is too late for state intelligence or law enforcement to intervene. 

In many examples over the years, the first anyone knew about a potential attack on a Western target was after it had occurred. Grassroots attackers can be extremely deadly because they could be any one of us. The individual responsible might have been known to law enforcement or state intelligence, but the pieces were either too disparate to put together or no one noticed the pattern appearing. Imagine how despairingly an intelligence analyst sees their job in this reality.

Human reaction to these terrorist events, when they happen, is widespread outrage at the incompetency of law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The people always demand to know why those officials tasked with protecting their loved ones were clearly so inept to let a bomber or shooter slip past. A call is typically lifted to prosecute the officials and make sure these attacks do not happen again. The sentiment is very valid, especially following a tragedy which can invoke wrenching feelings of pain and retribution in those victims suffering.

But United States President Barack Obama is absolutely correct when he patiently explained to members of the press June 9 that there is a trade-off, or a balance that needs to be found when it comes to privacy and security. The American people were outraged at the disgusting events in Boston, and equally irate at the revelations that the NSA is potentially monitoring the internet traffic of everyday Americans. In both cases, the American citizens are correct to be angry, but they need to tell the NSA and Mr Obama just how much they want their intelligence agencies to protect them from terrible events like Boston in the future. This will not be an easy discussion to have.

Because they can’t have it both ways. It is impossible for the American intelligence apparatus to protect their citizenry completely if they cannot diligently address the very heart of the identified problem. Long ago the heart of militancy and jihadist terrorism was in faraway lands; today it is just as likely - if not more likely – to come from down the street in a typical suburban American city. 

The difference between transnational terrorists and grassroots is that home-grown attackers are playing with penalty kicks in the great game of ‘Security Football’. Sooner or later, if a country’s intelligence agencies can’t monitor those threats sufficiently, that terrorist ball is going in the back of the net. Pretending that the threats could not possibly come from people living around you, when much of the evidence suggests otherwise, is a recipe for disaster spitting in the face of the security and privacy debate.

We need to talk about digital spying in the modern age - Part 4

It pays to reiterate here that intelligence agencies in Western countries - like the American NSA, the British GCHQ, and the New Zealand GCSB - are not the Orwellian leviathans that reactionaries would have us believe. They are generally filled with the nation’s best and brightest individuals who are sworn to protect their fellow citizens, but who are at the mercy of their fellow citizens for instructions and limitations on how much security they can offer and how much personal privacy they need to maintain. 

As Michael Hayden astutely said, Western intelligence can move the bar higher towards strictly protecting its citizens from only transnational terrorism and focusing their eyes and ears away from their home land. Or, they can lower the bar to catch more threats against the home land from people inside Western countries who may wish to do harm. This will require the eyes and ears to be turned also on Western citizens which may include programs like PRISM and a net loss in overall privacy.

This is the dilemma. It really comes down to understanding that the most likely threat against Western targets, in the trend of attacks in Boston and Woolwich, will come from disenchanted fellow citizens in the future. This will be a part of modern life for all Western countries, just like car crashes and obesity. Western intelligence agencies already know this and spotted the trend beginning in at least 2007 when the first digital corporation’s data was accessed by the NSA and added to the PRISM program. They realise that to protect their fellow citizens, they must track the movements of everybody to find out what the potential terrorists are saying. Since human communication relies almost exclusively on the internet, monitoring these people will require surveillance of well-known internet tools which are used by everyone.

As the PRISM program makes clear, the NSA is at a loss to approach this from a more focused way. They simply cannot come up with a way to split the potential terrorists from the normal peace-loving civilians without spreading everything on the table before they start searching. The dragnet method is their best shot at protecting those living in the Western world. 

A good way to think about this is considering searching through the rubbish outside a suspicious house. Pieces of evidence can be located in the bags to add more detail to the case, but the vast majority of the junk will be thrown away again once the search has moved on. If an innocent person’s personal communication is included in the “rubbish pile” - emails about the approaching 30th birthday party for instance – the intelligence analysts have far too much on their minds chasing terrorists that matter to worry about what you’re planning to buy as a present.

All this aside, it makes sense for people to be unsure of such a huge amount of power. If the government can essentially store every word or digital footstep for future use, then their ability to merge jurisdiction and legislation in enhanced phenomenally. This is undesirable in the extreme because those two foundations of democratic society are supposed to be separated. If your every digital move is being monitored, then the government can arbitrarily choose which of your transgressions it wishes to prosecute, lending the government incredible power which few people would be happy about. A robust case for a certain amount of privacy can be made using this argument.

And it also helps to think of the government as being made up of individuals, rather than as an impersonal entity. This is important because every person has their shortcomings, and not every person is ethical in identical ways. People that move into government circles are a snapshot of the society they hark from. In both civilian and government worlds there exists humans with empathy and without. The old adage of “absolute power corrupts absolutely” can be applied to the revelations of the NSA program PRISM.

But it is a far cry from talking about the fallibilities of some humans in power, to painting the entirety of the government as corrupt and greedy for more control. The truth is, the vast majority of civilian workers in Western intelligence agencies are good and caring people with their hearts and actions in the right place. America, Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand are lucky to have the intelligence workers they do and they should be given some credit for their actions.

So instead of whipping up another moral panic about the latest NSA surveillance revelations, perhaps it’s better to ask which reality in which one wishes to reside.

Do we want to have all our privacy and leave the government’s vast resources out of our lives to focus strictly on foreign threats?

If so, then as home-grown attacks happen - and they will happen - it needs to be understood that although the ability to protect against such atrocities was always there, the choice was made collectively to err on the side of privacy. It would be no one’s fault that these threats went unnoticed. In this reality the government is not to be blamed for seeing the attacks occur under its watch. The balance was agreed upon between the people and the intelligence services to be set at that level. But at least the discussion was conducted.

Or do we want to be protected from grassroots attacks and the threat of instant death or suffering by employing the government’s huge resources to monitor these individuals?

If so, then airports will need to retain their electronic body scanners, and we will need to hand over our water bottles and continue to take our shoes off before travelling in aircraft. And in the same vein, since there’s no easy way to isolate a potential terrorist in the thundering waterfall of internet traffic, the NSA will need to collect it all and filter out the patterns to find the threats hidden among our cities. Emails to co-workers, chats to friends, and documents sent to family will all potentially be gathered in the great dragnet of the NSA PRISM programs and others like it.

The idea of privacy will need to be rethought if greater security is truly desired. The NSA, with its enormous resources, has the ability to move that bar downwards to catch the threats posed by angry grassroots terrorists. But it needs to know how far it can go. The Western world’s intelligence agencies are at their citizen’s command; it is up to us to discuss where we want them.

New Zealand is already discussing where it wants the bar of its own GCSB monitoring capabilities. Although the historic threat of international or grassroots terrorism in very low in New Zealand, the issue is the same as in the United States. Citizens living in a modern Western society with constant access to the internet and light-speed communications need to understand that it is not just they as peaceful members of society who employ this great technology. If SIGINT agencies weren’t monitoring the internet traffic for criminals and terrorists, this would actually be a greater indictment on their competency. It is time to decide what privacy means for us in a world of interconnection and immersive communication.