New revelations made by whistleblower Edward Snowden make three things abundantly clear:
1. Nations are so interconnected in a post-globalization world that things like financial crises and government scandals can no longer be contained within borders. The far-reaching effects that a housing crash in the United States had throughout the world is attributed to “linkage,” the idea that financial shocks in one country are swiftly transferred to others because of the interconnectedness of modern markets. Financial markets of nations as diverse as Japan, Spain, and Russia were adversely affected, and GDP growth charts for a vast majority of countries show a marked decline around 2008, though the severity of the downturn depended on how big a stake that country had in the US housing market by way of mortgage-backed securities, as well as how much it relied on trade with the US.
Taken together, these charts suggest that we are all in this together. A disaster in one developed country (especially one with the largest economy in the world) has grave consequences both for emerging markets and other developed nations. But what Snowden’s most recent revelations suggest is that technology is creating political linkage among some nations, and that when the abuse of this technology is made public, this creates a domino-like scandal that threatens to seriously discredit more than one government.
The allegations that the British eavesdropping agency GCHQ used unsavory tactics to intercept communications from Turkey, South Africa, and Russia, as well as collaborating with US forces to tap the Russian President’s phone in 2009 should surprise no one; however, it suggests that more countries are probably involved in aggressive surveillance than formerly suspected. (There is now concern in Canada about both the effects of PRISM and the Canadian government’s use of data.) As citizens look to the US and begin asking questions about the surveillance tactics of their governments, the answers they come up with may be far more complicated and, well, scandalous than they imagine.
Of course, the information we receive about this scandal is brought to us via technological means. The ease with which information can be transmitted across the world in seconds is the cause of the linkage in financial markets, and the reason that events in one country now have a far greater impact than before.
2. Snowden’s allegations against the NSA and GCHQ confirm what we already suspected anyway: that regulation has not caught up to the great strides made in technological development in the past 20 years. It is hotly debated whether or not the NSA’s actions were constitutional, and as the GCHQ story breaks, no one seems to know if what they did is legal, or even ethical. This is unsurprising–it’s not like the US Constitution has amendments pertaining to the use of Facebook data by the government, and while the Constitution was meant to be interpreted, things have changed so radically since then that perhaps some new ground rules are needed (though the NSA may have violated the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens against unreasonable search and seizure).
And as for the ethics of cyber-attacks and use of personal data, I’m pretty sure Kant has a chapter on that somewhere, but I seem to have misplaced it. His Categorical Imperative might give us some useful insight into the moral dilemma posed by a state defending its citizens by infringing on their privacy–Kant hated moral inconsistency and would likely conclude that citizens either have a right to privacy, or they don’t. It’s easy to replace Kant’s famous murderer who asks which way his intended victim went with a vague image of a terrorist and conclude that moral rules cannot be violated even when the outcome is desirable (i.e. the ends never justify the means). Conor Friedersdorf makes some wonderful points about this in his article for The Atlantic.
3. The combination of informational linkage and lack of comprehensive regulation for both domestic and international uses of technology by governments signals that the day is fast approaching when we will need an international regulatory body recognized by every country in the world. It is needed partly due to rampant moral hazard among nations. Mexico bears the cost of lax gun regulation in the US; pollution engendered in one country can adversely affect another; and spy agencies act unilaterally, knowing they won’t be held accountable by their own governments, much less their victims.
While international bodies do exist, they range from mildly ineffective to superfluous, especially in regard to setting badly needed guidelines for information sharing. And how has international law helped in the capture of Mr. Snowden, who has chosen to hide first in China and now in Russia? A scandal involving one security leak now threatens to escalate into a full-blown diplomatic crisis–the butterfly effect has never been so potent! With domestic affairs so radically altered by international affairs due to technological integration, it is imperative that world leaders step up to the task of creating an international regulatory body; if they fail to do so, they may soon lose control of what happens inside their borders, too.