Media reports of the NSA’s alleged spying on the leaders of Germany, Mexico and Brazil are starting to remind people of the infamous Watergate scandal, and that could have implications for U.S. relations with other countries.

What implications for the U.S. will the NSA eavesdropping scandal have on global scale? Photo: AP

This summer, the world was shocked by revelations about Edward Snowden, a former employee of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), who uncovered the existence of technologies used by the NSA to gain access to the confidential information of customers of leading global Internet companies. The revelations had serious international consequences and set off domestic political disruptions that have rippled throughout the United States.

Precursors: Watergate and Wikileaks

The current situation is reminiscent of the Watergate scandal, which became a momentous event in modern American history. Some 40 years ago, amid an imminent domestic political crisis, president Richard Nixon was conducting a reelection campaign in his bid to win a second term.

Motivation to gather information about the plans of Nixon’s political opponents resulted in his personally ordering a secret operation that involved setting up listening devices in the Democratic Party’s headquarters in the Watergate complex, a group of administrative, residential and hotel buildings in the capital. By pure chance, the last attempt to install “bugs” was thwarted by the complex’s night watchman, and as a result, the culprits were caught red-handed.

Documents printed in the Washington Post by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein following the June 17, 1972 incident led to a trial, elicited a powerful public outcry and raised the issue of impeaching Nixon. A series of high-ranking White House employees were charged with illegal activities, and the president himself had to resign, becoming the first and, to date, only president in American history to do so.

The next major scandal connected with the leak of a large amount of information about government activities occurred in 2010. A marked increase in the intelligence-gathering abilities of America’s spy services that were triggered by the need to counteract terrorist organizations in the aftermath of 9/11 eventually led to a colossal breakdown in the American intelligence community. At the center of this scandal was the now infamous Wikileaks website.

PRISM’s global reach

The advance of the Internet as a communication network, combined with the amplification of terrorist activities targeting the United States, forced the administration of George W. Bush to reexamine priorities with regard to ensuring the country’s national security. Bush’s reforms provoked heated debate and serious criticism of the government, particularly when it came to how much it could infringe on citizens’ freedoms and interfere in private life in the name of national security.

According to the revelations by Edward Snowden, the key element in the system for gathering confidential data about American and foreign citizens was the PRISM program. Presentation slides that were published by American and British newspapers show large-scale and primary sources of information used by the American intelligence services.

Through the PRISM program, American intelligence services could theoretically collect any information transmitted by customers of Internet giants such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Apple.

The accessible data on the servers of these Internet giants were more than enough to achieve “total awareness.” If the information revealed by Snowden is taken to be reliable, it is possible to assert that the data that were collected sufficed to monitor the activity of practically all Internet users with any type of online presence.

The Google logo at the former Google China headquarters in Beijing. Photo: AP

Particularly interesting is the fact that many modern Internet companies offer so-called cloud data organization services. With cloud technologies, one may, instead of duplicating the storing of data on different devices, save all required information online (on a single server), and then access it from multiple devices. As the use of such technology is becoming more widespread, it has facilitated the work of the American intelligence services.

It is also important to note that along with text, sound, video and graphics transmitted via the Internet, servers have stored a large volume of technical information, such as the location of a user, his movements, Internet browsing history, information about contacts and so on (so-called metadata).

Such information also plays a major role. For example, the American media reported that Iraqi extremists could pinpoint the locations of American troops according to so-called geotags. One American soldier posted online a file with a photograph; the file contained geographic information about the precise location where the file was made. Hence, terrorists could find out exactly where they needed to carry out an attack.

After the scandalous publication of Snowden’s allegations in the British newspaper The Guardian, there were numerous investigations and statements by NSA representatives and Internet technology companies. NSA director Keith Alexander had to “explain himself” to lawmakers. On July 18, 2013, the intelligence committee of the House of Representatives held open hearings. During them, General Alexander said that if a program like PRISM had existed earlier, it would have been possible to prevent the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Denials of the Snowden revelations

Denials of the information brought to light by Snowden did not follow. In addition, Alexander repeatedly said that the NSA’s actions respected the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution and guaranteed the safeguarding of American citizens’ privacy. Denials and justifications came from other quarters implicated in the scandal—representatives of Microsoft, Google, Apple and Facebook, who said that requests from the American intelligence service were meticulously processed by the Department of Justice and complied with the law.

Microsoft published in The Guardian a denial of the information provided by Snowden— the same newspaper to which Snowden turned at the very beginning of the scandal. In the statement, Microsoft said that the company has “clear principles which guide the response across our entire company to government demands for customer information for both law enforcement and national security issues."

Red October, MiniDuke, TeamSpy, APT1 and Stuxnet are among the most dangerous cyberthreats of 2013. Photo: Kaspersky Lab

Microsoft also noted that, “We take our commitments to our customers and to compliance with applicable law very seriously, so we provide customer data only in response to legal processes.” Furthermore, the statement said that there were cases in which government security bodies were denied access to customer information if the disclosure of confidential information meant breaching the law.

In addition, a number of experts (for example, Barton Gellman and Laura Poitras) assert that direct access to companies’ servers may have been provided unknowingly; that is, companies may not even have known that such activity was being carried out. It is important to note that a court order was required only to get information about an American citizen, and information about foreign citizens was collected in such circumstances without legal sanction.

Despite the strong wave of criticism, General Alexander stated that, thanks to the work of the PRISM system, several terrorist acts had been averted. Not a single announcement has been made about curtailing the program, and by all appearances, government spending for these purposes is not being cut.

It must be noted the NSA has not reacted to “Snowdengate” by increasing responsibility and transparency about the organization’s actions, but by increasing requirements for providing information security with a view to preventing further information leaks.

A new Watergate, but on a global scale

Snowden’s subsequent revelations on how the NSA had access to information about world political leaders – in addition to confidential information about “average” users - ultimately transformed the secret operations of the American intelligence agencies into one of the most complex issues in international relations.

In October 2013, General Alexander said that he and his deputy would be stepping down. Over the course of the short existence of the Cyber Command, the generation of “founding fathers” is being replaced. It is possible that this will trigger a change in American strategy regarding the cyber landscape.

Keith Alexander has been performing two jobs: heading the strategic Cyber Command and leading the NSA. This situation, which once seemed logical, is now under review. Currently, the expert community in the United States is discussing the possibility of naming two different people to these posts.

It appears that a rapid change in strategy is not going to occur given that this would require the political will of the U.S. president, who currently finds himself in a difficult situation concerning federal budget issues. Furthermore, there looms the next round of elections in 2016, in which new candidates will run.

It remains to be seen if the Snowden affair will shift focus on the controversies of the U.S. national security. Photo: Reuters

Nor should it be overlooked that the PRISM system is not the only system enabling the gathering of confidential data. There is also every reason to suppose that data collection by American intelligence services will continue; the example of the PRISM program shows that such systems are easy to conceal, and a new system will more than likely be even more secret.

After announcing his resignation, the NSA chief said that he would rather “take the beatings [from the public and in the media] than to give up a program that would result in this nation being attacked.”

It is not out of the realm of possibility that in the United States there will be a subsequent attempt to legalize the spying activities of the American intelligence services. Judging by the reaction of American lawmakers, the future will see the adoption of various measures directed at increasing the legitimacy of the use of programs like PRISM. Government agencies, first and foremost the NSA and other intelligence services, are adopting various measures aimed at curbing future potential information leaks.

The absence of a vehement reaction by congressmen against the U.S. president can evidently be explained by the fact that the military leadership (above all the NSA) was able to convince the elected officials that such activity has played a decisive role in guaranteeing the country’s national security. In addition, General Alexander was appointed by a Republican president, and in this sphere, President Obama’s policies are largely continuing the initiatives begun by George W. Bush.

Congressmen probably do not want to open impeachment proceedings against Obama because the Democrats cannot criticize a member of their own party, and Republicans cannot criticize Alexander given that he was appointed by Bush. Contrast this to Nixon’s case, where the complaints were personal. In Snowden’s case, the grievances are not against the president personally, but rather, against the system as a whole. According to U.S. law, if a president loses authority for any reason, the vice president serves for the rest of the term. Yet Biden would be unlikely to make drastic changes.

Snowdengate: Lessons learned

Snowdengate has also illuminated gaps in international law, and resolving them will become a more complicated undertaking. With the development of new information technologies, not only is safeguarding secrets becoming more complicated, but also gathering a different type of information is becoming easier. The end result is that trust between governments, nations and other players in international relations is diminishing.

It also should not be overlooked that the international scandal set off by Edward Snowden’s revelations is provoking a further increase in information technology’s defensive potential. Just as the collection of information about political rivals, as in the case with Richard Nixon, provides advantages, so too does collection of information about military adversaries. In this regard, the counterterrorism capabilities of the PRISM system offer a clear advantage. A conflict between citizens’ rights (primarily the right to safeguard confidential information) and national security interests inevitably arises.

The unmasking of the PRISM program has shown that the American government has failed in its quest for a happy medium between guaranteeing freedoms and guaranteeing security. It goes without saying that the American government does not intend to eschew such activity in the future. What is more, at this time steps are being taken to tighten the secrecy of such programs. How this plays out in the future will be shown by history.