Democracies today are facing a new challenge: balancing the act of spycraft with the rights of privacy and freedom of speech and expression.
Today, the United States is a massive world power because revelations about mass intelligence gathering by the US and its allies serve the useful purpose of advancing the national interest of the nation. But the methods deployed by its agencies are often uncontrolled, highlighting the need for, and the proper role of, intelligence oversight in democracies.
The fundamental difference between authoritarian intelligence operations and those conducted by democracies is that the former serves the regime while the latter apparently serves the society. Intelligence agencies in democracies answer to the government of the day but are not subjects of it. Instead, they can be considered to be commonweal organizations, much like fire services: while they are responsible to the government in the first instance, but they serve society as a whole.
In the aftermath of the second world war, the winner allied powers decided to come together and continue sharing intelligence reports with each other for ‘national security’ purposes. Spearheaded by the UK and USA, the coalition was called the UKUSA (/juːkuːˈsɑː/ yoo-koo-SAH) coalition. The intelligence provided by the coalition was considered crucial in the allied victory in WII. In the aftermath of the war, it was decided to continue the scope and expand the level and scope of the intelligence sharing among the countries. Hence was formed the Combined Communications-Electronics Board and later came to be known as the Five Eyes.
The biggest advantage that Five Eyes has is its stealth. Five Eyes is so secretive that even the governments of all member nations have not yet officially acknowledged its existence. The coalition was so secretive that the Australian Prime Minister wasn’t told about its existence until 1973. Canada, NewZealand, and Australia have confirmed the existence of FVEY while the US and UK have categorically denied its existence.
Not accepting the existence of FVEY is crucial as then the governments can plead ignorance of any and all actions and/or activities of the FVEY. This also means that the governments have no restriction and/or oversight on the activities of the committee.
With no oversight, the powers the coalition has are nearly unlimited. The activities of the coalition are not regulated as many countries do not officially recognize the very existence of the coalition.
The reason democratic intelligence oversight is ideally split among the three branches of government is to avoid concentration of power in intelligence collection and to promote transparency and accountability among those who hold the critical responsibilities of safeguarding the nation’s secrets, thwarting the espionage of others, and collecting sensitive information vital to the national interest.
In another major change, the boundaries between public and private sector intelligence work are becoming increasingly blurred. Private contractors have become an essential part of the spy world. Today, intelligence officers regularly move into the private sector once they leave the government. The old rule that you are “either in or out” has become passé. That shift has allowed some ex-spies to get extremely rich, but it is also eroding the mystique—and the integrity—of the dark arts practiced in the service of the state.
Intelligence agencies in democratic countries no longer enjoy the legitimacy bequeathed on them in the past or the glamor that rubbed off from Hollywood and spy fiction. Public skepticism about the means and aims of a potentially money-grubbing, thuggish, and self-interested caste of spooks has grown. Spymasters increasingly have to justify what they do and accept unprecedented levels of legislative and judicial scrutiny.
“Privacy is not a feature, it’s a human right”
In the absence of any governmental oversight and regulation to oversee the often shadowy activities of these organizations, they work with impunity.
They are also accused of surveilling premiers of other nations like the CIA was accused of spying on the German chancellor Angelena Merkel and the GCHQ was allegedly involved in spying on foreign diplomats during G-7 in London through phony cyber cafes.
Hence, there is a debate whether the espionage activities by these intelligence collecting agencies, mostly in the name of national security be allowed to override the right to privacy of an individual, and to what extent must that be allowed.