How can spies from democracies compete with spies from autocracies?

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2019/05/17/cheques-and-balances.html

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It seems to me that the advantage autocracies have is spying on their own citizens. Democracies have no problems spying on other nations people. In fact, the difficulties spying on your own people in a democracy is already completely sidestepped by the 5 eyes partnership. While we can’t spy on our own people, the UK can spy on us and they are then free to share whatever they find with us.
Additionally, with pervasive state surveillance in an autocracy, they run the additional risk that their intelligence gathering apparatus will be hijacked by other states making spying on those autocracies a low cost low risk endeavor.

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When it comes to spying, historically, Canada has had very few hitches and many, many, many successes. (I can’t tell you about them because most are still classified, but suffice it to say that this little nation of polite folk speak softly and carry a verra big stick indeed.)

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Usually by enticing the spies from autocracies with things like money and freedom and safety for themselves and families.

The greatest threats to life for a spy in an autocracy usually come from their own country as opposed to their adversaries. A KGB agent usually had more to fear from his boss in Moscow than the CIA

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God I loved Spies Like Us growing up — felt like it was constantly on weekends on WPIX. I even got my own casette of Soul Finger.

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Congress has the authority, specified in the constitution, to issue letters or marque and reprisal. We could use this against countries doing state sponsored hacking against our industry by declaring open season for individual Americans to hack people in the offending country.

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Imagine the opportunities domestic blowback.

Bad, but perhaps not as bad an an outright alliance between national security organs and organized criminal gangs.

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Anotherone beat me to the 5 Eyes, which exists to get around pesky rules about spying on one’s own people. That derails much of this post. Governments in the US, UK, Canada, etc., may not be autocracies, but they know how to bend or ignore any putative rules put in place to limit info gathering.
A domestic US analogy: Private license plate reading companies who allow cops to use their data to track both innocent and guilty parties who use autos in urban areas.
We once asked “Who will watch the watchers?” but that question assumes someone at the end of that rope has integrity. Anyone?

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The problem really is that statisticians and lawyers don’t stay bribed.

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Has it held up?

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The last couple days have had a lot of stories in the mainstream center right places along the lines of “Russia and China are so scary that we need to be more authoritarian to complete, it’s just a fact”.

Obviously just a coincidence. If there was a rising tide of fascism and a fight over which side the centrists will end up on or something I’d be worried. But that isn’t happening it is just a funny coincidence.

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Several arms’-length distant commercial spying agencies are how democratic countries can compete

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I’ve read that Soviet spies in the West knew the value of public sources – and their bosses back in Moscow did not. A Soviet spy in the US would read articles in the specialist press about a new US fighter plane, for example, and pass off what they learned as secrets gleaned from a non-existent human source inside the Air Force. They could get away with this because their bosses often hadn’t been posted in the West and didn’t realise how much information was out in the open.

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JFC “self-putinization” is one helluva neologism.
I realize the U.S. deserves this dubious distinction but the burn, the burn…

pogo

I am prompted to recall a line from

where U.S. intelligence agencies/groups/orgs are described as unfathomably complex and sometimes found to be working at cross-purposes.

If I can find the quote I’ll post it. As usual, Stephenson nails it, and it is very dryly delivered.

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“Mostly,” Olivia said, “I would just like to know whether he’s working for some other branch of the government or a private security contractor.”

“Oh no, we wouldn’t set you up with a mercenary,” said Uncle Meng, a bit pained.

“Right then, so he was a snake eater. They decided he had talents beyond his station in life. They kicked him upstairs.”

“The American national security apparatus is very large and unfathomably complex,” was all that Uncle Meng would say. “It has many departments and subunits that, one supposes, would not survive a top-to-bottom overhaul. This feeds on itself as individual actors, despairing of ever being able to make sense of it all, create their own little ad hoc bits that become institutionalized as money flows toward them. Those who are good at playing the political game are drawn inward to Washington. Those who are not end up sitting in hotel lobbies in places like Manila, waiting for people like you.”

Neal Stephenson, Reamde p652 © 2011

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Surveillance contractors should not be a thing. You want in the spy game work for the government. With all the oversight that requires.

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They can’t. And shouldn’t. Freedom has its price and it has to be paid in full. And in this instance it is a comparatively a slight one.

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I feel there is a slight disconnect here, in that autocracies have always had an advantage in controlling information through surveillance and controlling the media, an advantage that they badly need since they are so crap at actually running the shop. The disconnect is how we are conflating controlling what people can say and do with gathering intelligence on what other nations are doing and planning.

If anything, by being so promiscuous with our information, we worsen the signal to noise for autocratic intelligence agencies hoping to glean more, hoping to use our own tech against us.

You know, governments have a philosophy of “monopoly of violence”, meaning use of violence is only legal for their own military and law enforcement agencies. Perhaps a similar philosophy is needed for surveillance?

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This was actually the premise behind the novel Three Days of the Condor which was made into a movie starring Robert Redford. The protagonist was working for a small office that specialised in doing just that: analysing publicly available info, and was on a shoestring budget because it wasn’t as sexy as bribing generals.

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There’s no longer any significant difference between “democracies” and autocratic states. The former are state-enabled private sector autocracies and the latter are state autocracies. How do corrupted democracies differ in any meaningful way from autocracies? Who really, why give a shit about Foreign Policy’s concern?

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