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What Snowden and PRISM Mean to US-China Cyber Politics

Jun 26 , 2013
  • Chris Bronk

    Baker Institute fellow in information technology policy

During the first bilateral summit between Presidents Obama and Xi, the international dialogue on cyber security and Internet freedom was thrown a bit of a curveball by a series of revelations published in the Guardian newspaper and the Washington Post, by Glenn Greenwaldand Barton Gellman, respectively.  

The stories published before and during the summit revealed a new, previously unknown type of court order produced by the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) regarding telephony metadata; a potentially wide-spread cyber intelligence collection operation run by the National Security Agency known as PRISM; and an unpublished presidential directive regarding U.S. offensive cyber operations policy and strategy.  The first two items have sparked a worldwide debate on U.S. cyber intelligence operations; the last fell with a bit of a thud. 

That anyone is particularly shocked that the United States, its allies, or others might undertake online surveillance surprised me. I said as much in my paper 2008 Webtapping: Securing the Internet to save us from transnational terror?, which I published during the public debate on warrantless wiretapping in the United States.  Back then I made the following argument: 

[T]here exists a disconnect between [intelligence agencies and their advocates and those arguing for civil liberties, in] a debate without discussion. Until these groups, the intelligence agencies, privacy advocates, and telecom companies, are able to get back around the table to bargain as they did in the period between the Church Commission and September 11 there will be little accord among them. Desperately needed is this type of interplay on the emergent phenomena surrounding webtapping. Today policy–makers rarely hear more than monologues distorted by incomplete technical knowledge of the topic. 

PRISM and the telephony metadata order to Verizon have prompted new discussion on how the U.S. conducts intelligence operations designed to protect its citizenry. This is a discussion that will be good for the United States as it attempts to put in perspective its massive, global campaign against terror organizations, primarily in the Muslim world. In his May 23 National Defense University speech, President Obama attempted to reframe the war on terror as a chronic problem requiring attention, but not overwhelming concern. On the leaks of classified information out of the U.S. government, he offered: 

As Commander-in-Chief, I believe we must keep information secret that protects our operations and our people in the field.  To do so, we must enforce consequences for those who break the law and breach their commitment to protect classified information.  But a free press is also essential for our democracy.  That’s who we are.  And I’m troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable. 

Greenwald’s reporting two weeks later stands as a test of the President’s rhetoric. 

Setting aside principle, there is a matter of how the leaks impact the broader geopolitics of cyberspace. Particularly important is the time and location of Edward Snowden choosing to announce his identity as the leaker to the world via his press contact, Glenn Greenwald. That Snowden, a U.S. government contractor working in the Intelligence Community, turned up in Hong Kong, was an incredibly interesting development. Why Hong Kong? Why the day after the Obama-Xi summit? Fine questions. Since Snowden’s outing himself as the leaker, there have been more leaks and on June 21, the U.S. government allegedly filed a sealed criminal complaint in the Eastern District of Virginia. Where and how the Snowden story will end is anyone’s guess. 

The government of the Hong Kong Special Autonomous Region (HKSAR) has avoided a protracted diplomatic conflict in allowing Snowden to leave, no doubt annoying the U.S. in the process. Of the larger discussion on the U.S.-China bilateral position on cyber issues, the leaks regarding NSA operations make it more difficult for the United States government as a trustworthy steward in cyberspace. In the run-up to the Obama-Xi summit, the U.S. government made a concerted effort on the issue of Chinese government-sponsored cyber espionage. That discussion was set back enormously by timing and content of Snowden’s leaks. 

None of this means, however, that the U.S. and China should stop talking about cyberspace. Quite the contrary, the NSA leaks show that both countries have very serious internal security concerns on which they are willing to expend considerable effort. What both should realize is that the forces pushing for global information transparency are a force with which to be reckoned. Neither country can afford to pay lip service to open government while at the same time brandishing their cyber attack capabilities. Why? For the simple reason that governments are but one player in global cyber politics, standing alongside corporations, NGOs, academics, and the growing ranks of super-empowered transparency activists the likes of Assange, Manning and Snowden. 

Chris Bronk is the Baker Institute fellow in information technology policy. He previously served as a career diplomat with the U.S. Department of State and worked as a software developer. The views presented are his own.

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