The NSA scandal stays below the threshold

One of the most important German national newspapers, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, recently published an article titled "Der hat doch gar nichts enthüllt" ~ "He didn't didn't reveal anything after all", about Edward Snowden.
The author's thesis was that the NSA scandal is all about abstract activities, not about something that affects us on a gut level.

I think he was onto something here. 
The STASI outrage was so great because the East Germans were under very tight surveillance, and after the reunification they were able to read details of their private lives such as "sex at 20:00, sex finished at 20:15" (an example taken from an East German sports celebrity).
The Snowden leaks don't have such details.

So far the Snowden leaks addressed the ratio: We just intellectually know that a free peoples' government doesn't treat its citizens like that, and we just intellectually know that a free country ought not tolerate such an intrusion by a foreign country.
But it's only the intellectual self which is in protest. There's no gut-level revolt.

A while ago I wrote about how Putin manoeuvred below the threshold of forceful reaction in his empire re-establishment foreign policies, and I suppose the United States do the same with their "Global War on Terror" and whatever slipped under this umbrella.

On the gut level, the Western World has it right, is the lighthouse of freedom, liberty, well-organised government. Yet a rational, intellectual inquest reveals how Western governments are actually exploiting the freedom of action left by our complacent gut feelings.

Intellectuals have revolted against mass surveillance, but those driven by intellect are inept at inciting a revolt of gut feelings - so little comes of this political revolt.

I suppose this manoeuvring below the gut feeling revolt threshold is a common problem; it's the exploitation of complacency, rigidity, secrecy and laziness for agents of the people to act in violation of their preferences if not interests.

A common problem deserves a general reaction: We need to lower the threshold for punishment of such behaviour.

The people won't change much. Different cultures, different education, different era - there's little reason to believe that any such difference will yield a much lower threshold.
One of the ways to still lower the threshold is to allow for a reaction without much of an occasion, by bypassing complacency. I suppose if all of us had a pop-up window on our computer asking whether the German government shall kick out all real or suspected U.S. intelligence personnel from Germany because of the mass surveillance by the NSA, we'd easily get a majority "yes".

That's because the threshold for punishment can be lowered in more than one way: We can get more easily agitated (in theory), but we can also make dealing out punishments less of an effort.

And I think that's a route which we should follow in the perpetual challenge to improve the own society. It's just unlikely that our politicians who are enjoying so much freedom of action for their games will hand us this directly. We just might get the power and opportunity to correct such manoeuvring in the gray zone through plebiscites, though.



  1. Maybe leak some detailed private information about Angie?

  2. I suspect that the real reason there is so little government action against spying is the reality that every government is doing it!


    1. Sorry GAB, but not every government is storing "metadata" on virtually all internet traffic.

      That is the extent of operations disclosed by Mr. Snowden. And the supposed reson is to fight terrorists. According to the only published comprehensive study [Bergen et al] 1,5-3%, of the about 225 indivdiuals who have been tried in the US under Terrorism charges in the past years, were found thanks to the NSA operations. And NSA information was only used in about 10% of cases.

      [Even if in all 225 cases, the indivduals would have been primarily identified through these intelligence measures, it is very questionable if the massive privacy issues are worth it.]

    2. It's about something else than hunting terrorists. It can serve as an excuse for budget increase, but it likely provides much more benefits for intelligence and these are not yet undisclosed. Blackmail, especially of persons in key spots, could be one benefit. Another would be running detailed analyses on the moods and opinions of populations, including the knowledge on better measurements to influence these for specific goals.

    3. @Anonymous 0929H

      Yeah, sure it "might" be about something else. But we're talking 'offical' reasons here and "Blackmail of foreign dignitaries" is no reason I have heard being publicly discussed.

      If it wasn't used for such purposes, as I said, the program is an utter failure. But then the question remains how 'Stalinist' our intelligence services are becoming. After all, not actually using gathered private information on 'civilians' is what supposedly sets 'democraticaly controlled' agencies apart from the KGB or other dictatorial intelligence organs.
      And just to say it again: There's (partly extremely private) info on virtually everyone. How can there be serious oversight of intelligence agencies, when there is a trove of blackmail material on everyone? Just think about how easily a politician's career can be ruined even by a couple of unfounded accusations!

    4. Blackmail is a rarely discussed aspect of the NSA scandal, though.