If the US reforms the NSA, who benefits? China? Russia? Or the US?

by Chris Zappone

Rory Medcalf of the Lowy Institute argues, logically, that what’s bad for the NSA may be good for the CIA. He writes that if the NSA gets its wings “clipped” by politicians, it may increase the appetite for age-old traditional spying, like the kind done by the CIA. That remains to be seen, especially in an era when people, organizations, governments are increasingly the sum of their computers.

But I am thinking the fallout from the Snowden saga may relate more to the second observation by Medcalf:

“There is some understandable worry about how much damage the Snowden leaks are doing to US influence, playing into the hands of authoritarian states untroubled about striking a balance between democratic transparency and effective intelligence capabilities.”

If the NSA does get its wings “clipped,” I would expect the reforms to buttress online and digital privacy rights in the US, as well as any UN treaty that’s being negotiated. But those reforms would be happening at a time when countries like China and Russia, with the NSA’s blueprints in hand, would consider upgrading their surveillance systems – with little or no civilian oversight. I don’t see oversight happening in Russia, not as the country drifts back in time under an authoritarian leader like Putin. And I suspect that the nascent civil society urge in China would be lightyears away from checks on the inner-workings of their own security services. In fact, the bundle of reforms to be announced at the latest plenary are likely to center on the economy and society – but not on civil liberties. And I think the more freedoms Chinese people have, the more paranoid the Chinese Communist Party will be about maintaining their central place in society.

So despite the obvious crisis mode of the US during this scandal, it’s not hard to imagine a future where the internet grows more free there, with more checks on power and civilian oversight on government snooping. At the same time, it’s not hard to imagine that in places like China and Russia, digital privacy, digital free speech takes a step backwards.

It’s a paradox of sorts because clearly, today, the Snowden revelations are hurting US influence, and yet down the line, they may actually help the US. If nothing else, the US is on the verge of having the grown-up debate about balancing the possibilities of technology against the requirements of a democratic, civil society. Certainly Snowden, from what we know, views it like this. In time, the crisis-hit US may be able to boast the kind of freedoms that will continue to assure it looks attractive as a society, and even world power, in contrast to its rivals in China and Russia. And that could very well matter when it comes to attracting global talent or incubating new ideas and industries. We’ll see.