Why Do We Spy on Our Allies?


With allegations of a second American spy being caught in Germany, Chancelor Angela Merkel — who has herself dealt with NSA cell phone tapping — said she is “not amused” by the possibility, according to The Associated Press.

Governmental espionage is a necessity of international relations that stretches back to the earliest civilizations, but it’s one that has changed an incredible amount in even just the last few decades. A great deal of that has to do with the way that technology has changed spying as it used to be known, both within the U.S. — as former NSA contractor Edward Snowden demonstrated — and outside it. For one thing, it has made it intelligent operations conductible in a million more ways, many from a computer terminal. We now have spying via drone technology; email, text, and messaging surveillance; cyber warfare; the list of new ways to go about intelligence gathering is endless. As Snowden discussed recently, a phone and a laptop are not just a phone and a laptop. They can tell you a great deal about a person, and remote accessing is akin to a push lock, not Fort Knox.

China is a perfect recent example of espionage as we now see it in cyberspace. In May, Chinese military was accused by the U.S. Justice Department of committing cyber espionage attacks against the U.S. The economic nature of the attacks in particular was what incensed the United States. Companies including Alcoa, U.S. Steel, Westinghouse, Allegheny Technologies Inc., and SolarWorld were thought to be targeted. Perpetrators stole information on intellectual property, blueprints that could be used to cut research and development costs for competing companies, business plans — all of which could be used to give other commercial interest an edge. In response to the U.S.’s accusations, China made some of their own. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang claimed that the U.S. had committed “cyber theft, wiretapping, and surveillance activities … cyber intrusion,” as well as “wiretapping and surveillance activities against Chinese government departments, institutions, companies, universities, and individuals.”

Months ago, former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden spoke in an interview with Spiegel and addressed the fact that America has been accused of militarizing cyberspace. He pointed out that American cyber security experts, when surveyed, all named China as their greatest fear in cyberspace. Considering the chilly recent history with China, an intense espionage program targeting the People’s Republic seems a logical choice on the part of the U.S. But the current tensions with Germany over spying draw attention to the fact that America has eyes in places we would consider allies, or even “friends,” so far as that term applies in the cynical and cut throat world of politics.