When he found asylum in Russia this summer, after his revelations about the extent of the National Security Agency’s surveillance activities, Edward Snowden seemed like a traitor, determined to confide in the enemy his country’s most precious secrets. The welcome that Vladimir Putin reserved for him was a master stroke in the new cold war that our globalized universe fell into.
Six months later, this analysis seems to fall short of reality. The damage the former information technology specialist has caused confirms the seriousness of the “Snowden affair,” at a time when cyberspace has become one of the main stakes of international governance, as testifies the work of the World Policy Conference, organized by the French Institute of International Relations in Monaco.
Since July, not a week has gone by without leaks that detail how leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel, Brazil’s Dilma Roussef, businesses and allied governments, or even the citizens of each country this insidious campaign targets are subjected to wire-tapping. Snowden has had access to 1.7 million NSA documents, the most sensitive of which have not yet been sorted. The undermining is not over. The list of leaks, geography of their effects and their dissemination across time makes us think that the objective is to disturb relations between the United States and its allies in order to harm the West.
With Brazil and Germany, the diplomatic uproar has resulted in lasting uneasiness. The U.S. consents to cease the personalized wire-tapping of allied leaders but refuses to commit to anything beyond that. From now on, the behavior of intelligence services is on the agenda of diplomatic contacts.
The Americans in charge take offense to the “hypocrisy” of this debate. Since the dawn of time, everyone has been spying on everyone else. Nothing has changed. In the wake of the Patriot Act adopted after 9/11, the terrorism risk is enough to justify surveillance. New technology provides the tools that the enemy masters as well as we do. They measure up. It would be suicidal not to take advantage of it. In the aftermath of the “withdrawal” of the former NSA consultant, Barack Obama could use the problem to figure out a “balance” between surveillance and protection of private details. However, in the meantime, things are indeed complicated.
The major Internet operators, which are all American — Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo! — are worried: The extent of their collaboration with the NSA, out in the open from now on, is terribly negative publicity abroad. In order to preserve their power on the World Wide Web, they require a reform of U.S. surveillance agency practices. The risk of a “balkanization” of the Internet is indeed real. Every country, like China, Russia or, now, even Brazil, can be tempted to establish barriers to protect themselves from U.S. espionage. Without the free circulation of information, the loss in growth of the global economy would be immeasurable; the authoritarian regimes, they could prosper.
The firms of Silicon Valley consist of pro-freedom lobbies. The most innovative sector across the Atlantic is a powerful lobby that opposes the equally powerful group of security and intelligence and is useful to Snowden and his admirers, the majority of whom are thorough transparency activists, hostile to all “national interest” and determined to defend a freedom without constraints on the Web. A federal judge who was appointed by George W. Bush is adding his voice to the denunciations of a “quasi-Orwellian” surveillance.
The “Snowden affair” initially discredited Washington’s foreign policies in revealing a fundamental contradiction: the claim of defending individual liberties everywhere, while massively violating them under the pretense of the fight against terrorism. The revelations about intrusive surveillance practices now weaken the American democratic system and contemporary economic model.
Between the defense of the commercial interests of the Internet’s heavyweights and need for security, which intelligence agencies express, Barack Obama is going to have to find a point of consensus. As for Europeans, they are marginalized, not having known to equip themselves with Internet operators capable of rivaling the Americans. Yet, it is a battle that heralds the great challenges of international politics in the coming years.