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Surveillance and American Liberty

CAMBRIDGE – Ever since Edward J. Snowden disclosed the National Security Agency’s ongoing collection of massive amounts of electronic-communications data generated by United States citizens and non-citizens alike, attention has been lavished on his personal status. But the more important issue, even before Russia granted him temporary asylum, is the status of American civil liberties. Is the US guilty of hypocrisy, as Russia, China, and others have charged?

To answer that question, it is important to distinguish between two issues that have become conflated in public debate: electronic espionage against foreign entities and domestic surveillance of a government’s own citizens.

Before Snowden’s disclosures, cyber espionage had become a major point of contention in US-China relations. It was discussed at the June “shirt-sleeves summit” between Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, and the two governments agreed to create a special working group on the issue.

The US accuses China of using cyber espionage to steal intellectual property on an unprecedented scale. Among other public sources, it could point to a study by the cyber-security firm Mandiant, which traced many such attacks to a People’s Liberation Army facility in Shanghai. China counters that it is also the victim of innumerable cyber intrusions, many originating in the US.