Espionage under debate

The National Security Agency (NSA) was always considered the most powerful and least known intelligence organization in the United States. Until the arrival of former contractor Edward Snowden who, with his leak, has laid bare the agency’s operations, opening a much needed debate on the balance between individual privacy and national security.

Revelations about domestic and international espionage have put the large magnitude of information collected on display, in a context where no one remains unaffected, from the communications of average Americans to those of allied nations’ heads of state.

Although American intelligence operations have been public knowledge for a long time, following the terrorist attack of 9/11, they intensified both domestically under the Patriot Act—which contributed to the NSA gaining access to more information—and extended to the deplorable practices at secret prisons and the torture of prisoners in allied countries.

The ongoing news reports releasing Snowden’s documents in dribs and drabs—which will certainly continue to fill headlines for a long time to come—have sparked numerous legislative bills in Congress to reestablish a balance between privacy and security.

Yet we must not be so naive as to believe that espionage is exclusively an American practice. No self-respecting government in the world lacks its own intelligence apparatus.

The big difference is not necessarily the morality of the action, such as spying on an ally, but rather the $10.8 billion per year that provide the NSA with the latest technology. This, combined with the belief that American interests extend to every corner of the globe, create a combination that can aid security, but is a double-edged sword with friendly nations, as has been seen with France, Germany, Mexico, and Brazil, among others.

The debate between privacy and security has been put off a long time, and if anything positive has arisen from Snowden’s actions, it has been creating the right time for this discussion.