x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

US leaks raise hard questions on snooping

The sheer scale of the snooping that America's National Security Agency has been revealed to be conducting is frightening.

As the revelations of extensive surveillance by the United States government continue to emerge, those who defend the actions of America's National Security Agency have taken a familiar line: that those who have nothing to hide, have nothing to fear.

If only it were so simple. This region, perhaps better than most, knows the perils of extensive government surveillance. It was what made Syria during Hafez Al Assad's rule so terrifying and what led to Saddam Hussein's Iraq being called, aptly, a republic of fear. The tentacles of the mukhabarat, the interlocking security agencies that overshadowed both countries, reached deep into the private lives of ordinary citizens, so that most did not know if they were being watched or listened to, and many feared even those closest to them. Such was the extensive surveillance of the Baathist states that many who left feared they were being monitored even abroad.

The United States, obviously, is not the Baathist states of Al Assad and Hussein. Yet the sheer scale of the snooping that the NSA has been revealed to be conducting is frightening. For years, since at least 2007, the US government has been monitoring communications across a range of platforms: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, YouTube, Skype have all been affected, meaning that emails, chats, photos, videos and conversations occurring on the most popular online sites have been within its watch.

Worse, the snooping has been worldwide. A map obtained by The Guardian newspaper, which broke the story, shows that the areas outside America most focused on by the NSA are in the Greater Middle East: Syria, Egypt, Iran and Pakistan are among the most surveilled.

The Obama administration has argued that the right balance has been struck between security and liberty, in a dangerous world. But if so, why was the programme kept so secret, and so hidden from the US public?

The anger, not merely from ordinary Americans but from US lawmakers themselves, shows that there is much hidden from public view in the US.

The world has changed since September 11, 2001, but the basic idea that some things ought to be private remains. The question remains this: Has an over-eager US government drawn that distinction too widely for Americans to stomach?