There are two governments vying to be the best at spying on U.S. citizens: the American government and the Chinese government. While I’m not thrilled about either military sifting through my private data, if information sharing allows the U.S. government to block Chinese hackers, I’ll happily choose a democratic government over a viciously authoritarian one.
Civil libertarians have thoughtful reasons to worry about expensive surveillance, but when the potential harms from the U.S and Chinese governments are compared, I think it’s clear we have less to worry about from the U.S. Congress’s spying practices in the proposed cybersecurity bill, The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA).
Sponsors of CISPA argue that greater information sharing is necessary to combat the ever-sophisticated threat of foreign hackers, and citizens must choose between fewer civil liberties and greater personal security. Hackers, especially the Chinese, often infiltrate computer systems by duping gullible users into downloading malicious software from their social networks and email providers. For the sake of argument, let’s assume CISPA will aid the U.S government in combating foreign hackers and weigh the harms.
Harms By U.S. Surveillance
The contentious CISPA bill grants telecommunication and Internet companies immunity from sharing users’ private information with federal agencies for the purposes of counter cyber-attacks. However, digital consumer watch-dog group Electronic Frontier Foundation warns it is “written so broadly that it allows companies to hand over large swaths of personal information to the government with no judicial oversight—effectively creating a ‘cybersecurity’ loophole in all existing privacy laws.”
So, let’s assume the worst-case scenario of an American government that constantly spies on citizens with little oversight. What happens? Washington University Law Professor, Neil Richards, suggests two concrete harms.
First, self-censorship increases. Citizens fearful of eavesdropping agents refuse to criticize their own government. While there is some experimental evidence from the University of Tennessee that monitored participants are less likely to discuss incriminating topics, the United States has vastly expanded its spying apparatus and there’s no shortage of government critics.
Second, corrupt agencies can blackmail potential whistleblowers. “Information collected surreptitiously can be used for other purposes, whether blackmail or the discrediting of opponents by revealing embarrassing secrets,” writes Richards. For instance, the Federal Food and Drug Administration spied on scientists who were critical of dangerous medical devices approved by the agency. No shocker, these scientists are no longer employed by the FDA.
Targeted whistleblower spying is a serious concern, but there’s no indication that CISPA would prevent corrupt agencies from breaking the law anyways. The military already has broad powers to eavesdrop on citizens (or automatically collect volumes of data) largely without a warrant.
Harms By Foreign Government Hacking
Foreign governments, especially the Chinese, have aggressively expanded their hacking capabilities against large U.S. multinationals, Internet service providers, and media outlets, as revealed in a new 60-page report by security firm, Mandiant. “Mandiant has watched the group as it has stolen technology blueprints, manufacturing processes, clinical trial results, pricing documents, negotiation strategies and other proprietary information from more than 100 of its clients, mostly in the United States,” reported the The New York Times.
Foreign attacks represent a very real and grave threat to the American economy and its citizens.
First, foreign hackers have stolen valuable military and nuclear secrets. In 2000, the Chinese government reportedly hacked into the Los Alamos labs and made off with sensitive nuclear weapons research.
Second, they can compromise national infrastructure. In one instance, an employ’s USB drive inadvertently injected malicious code into a nuclear facility. In other words, users can be the source of vulnerability that affects us all.
Third, they steal trade secrets and disrupt commerce. One high-level Chinese infiltration coincided with Coca-Cola’s failed acquisition of the China Huiyuan Juice Group. Hackers were “busy rummaging through their computers in an apparent effort to learn more about Coca-Cola’s negotiation strategy,” according to Mandiant.
I’m Not So Afraid Of CISPA
Supporting CISPA isn’t about giving up rights; it’s about deciding which rights are more threatened. I wish we lived in a world where I didn’t have to choose. But the likely concrete harms from government surveillance, self-censorship and whistleblower blackmail, seem far less scary to me than stolen nuclear secrets, destabilized vital infrastructure, and disrupted commerce.
If I have to choose who is spying on me, I’ll choose a democracy any day of the week.