Questions about the legitimacy and efficacy of the mass-surveillance techniques used by the National Security Agency continue to swirl around the globe. The debate in the United States has mostly focused on a misleading trade-off between security and privacy.
“If you don’t have anything to hide,” goes the refrain, “you shouldn’t mind if the government collects information to prevent another terrorist attack.” In this trade-off, security will always trump privacy, especially when political leaders rightly see preventing terrorist acts as their top national security responsibility.
But this zero-sum framework ignores the significant damage that the NSA’s practices have done to U.S. national security. In a global digital world, national security depends on many factors beyond surveillance capacities, and over-reliance on global data collection can create unintended security vulnerabilities.
There’s a better framework than security-versus-privacy for evaluating the national security implications of mass-surveillance practices. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it “smart power.”
Her idea acknowledges that as global political power has become more diffuse, U.S. interests and security increasingly depend on our ability to persuade partners to join us on important global security actions. But how do we motivate disparate groups of people and nations to join us? We exercise smart power by inspiring trust and building credibility in the global community.