SIGINT Emerges From the Shadows, Part Three: Privacy and Surveillance Debates

It is no coincidence that SIGINT agencies have become more publicly facing at a time when they have witnessed their reputations corrode. The classified NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013 renewed long-standing privacy debates and led to public mistrust over the US intelligence community. In 2015, the majority of Americans opposed the US government collecting bulk data and two-thirds believed there were not adequate limits on what type of data can be collected.

A more publicly facing outlook provides a means to overcome the current trust deficit. Public appearances by senior SIGINT agency staff creates the perception of a more transparent and open culture. SIGINT agencies have turned to social media to inform the public about the positive achievements in their history. The Twitter accounts of GCHQ, NSA and CEA, all regularly post about the role of these agencies in WWII for example. Agencies have also sought to bring the positive case for their role today — GCHQ claims that information it has gathered stopped six alleged terrorist plots in 2015 alone.

Events, Dear Boy

Despite these efforts to become more public, the perception of SIGINT activities sits largely outside of their control. Public confidence is predominantly shaped by events rather than SIGINT PR departments. Terrorist incidents inevitably precede newspaper headlines about the failures of intelligence agencies. While such arguments are often unreasonable, they play a significant role in shaping public trust. Ultimately, when it comes to reputation, perceptions trump.

In addition to events, the role of Hollywood should also not be underestimated. The Imitation Game, a 2014 thriller about Alan Turing’s role in cracking Nazi codes during World War II, has led to a renewed interest in Bletchley Park and helped GCHQ to improve its reputation and recruitment efforts. By contrast, Snowden, a 2016 Oliver Stone drama, portrayed the NSA in less flattering terms. Former NSA Deputy Director Chris Inglis acknowledged that the film could further shift public perceptions against US intelligence agencies.

Political processes inhibit intelligence agencies’ ability to engage in debates about their role. Most governments have decided (rightly) that intelligence agencies should refrain from making arguments about the scope of their powers and remit directly. The idea being that intelligence policy, while executed by intelligence agencies, is decided upon by elected officials — thereby establishing a greater democratic legitimacy around the process. Yet, those that argue against the activities of SIGINT agencies do not face these constraints. The pro-privacy community, which condemns the role of SIGINT agencies, therefore enjoys a much more visible public profile. Privacy advocates can criticise intelligence gathering activity directly — often on public platforms without any serious counter-arguments being made. Technology firms have also publicly opposed intelligence gathering activity that harms their commercial interests (a trend that has picked up significantly since the Snowden outlined cooperation methods between the NSA and technology firms).

Although it is right that intelligence agencies and their respective PR department avoid commenting on these issues directly, SIGINT agencies find themselves on the back foot and largely unable to defend their record as a result. In short, SIGINT agencies face inherent structural barriers in confronting these emerging debates.

The SIGINT PR agency

Where intelligence agencies don’t speak, others make arguments on their behalf — whether that be senior government officials, former intelligence staff or journalists. Whilst government officials might be the legitimate representatives for these intelligent-related issues, they have not always demonstrated an appreciation of the finer details. Too often, government officials make proposals on issues such as encryption that are outside the bounds of technical reality and largely mocked within the technology sector and mainstream media. This harms not only the reputation of the official in question, but also the SIGINT agency that they represent.

It is therefore vital for officials to truly understand the issues that they comment on, including broader trade-offs (such as the cyber security and privacy implications related to encryption policy). Here, SIGINT agencies can play a supportive function, using their expertise to work with officials to help them formulate more educated public policy positions and ensure proposals stand on a solid technical footing.

Former intelligence staff are also able to comment publicly on general policy matters. Former heads of intelligence agencies enjoy the most substantial following and it is they who typically write newspaper op-eds and are invited for TV interviews. Whilst these individuals tend to be intelligent, savvy and media trained, by virtue of their previous seniority they are often be out of date with more nascent security issues (a former intelligence head who retired twenty years ago may not fully appreciate the arguments related to the current vulnerability equity process debate for example). While former intelligence heads represent a useful resource for public debate, their efforts could be further complemented by alternative sources of insight. A significant number of intelligence agency staffers leave much earlier in their careers. Often younger and more dynamic, these former staffers have gone on to establish successful careers in cyber security and offer nuanced perspectives on nascent intelligence and cyber security issues. Going forward, the public debate, as well as intelligence agencies, would benefit from this group of former staffers being given a greater public platform on more mainstream outlets media outlets. Governments and SIGINT agencies have a limited ability to create such a platform, yet it nevertheless represents a fruitful area for growth.

Shifting the debate

Governments and intelligence agencies could pursue a more conciliatory tone in their public messaging. As recent encryption debates have suggested, when governments seek to compel the assistance of technology firms, media coverage and public opinion largely sides with technology firms. Going forward, a more cooperative tone from both sides would prove more productive. Governments therefore have an opportunity to work with other stakeholders to reframe current debates to make proposals based on partnerships rather than strong arm tactics.

SIGINT agencies deserve credit for the ways they have become more open and promoted the positive role their agencies can play in recent years. As discussed above, however, these agencies also face inherent structural barriers that prevent them from participating fully in current privacy debates. The public engagement strategy of SIGINT agencies must therefore broaden and become more collaborative.

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