John Villasenor on the NSA and Economic Espionage

Benjamin Wittes
Friday, June 14, 2013, 10:30 AM
Over at Forbes, John Villasenor has this interesting piece arguing that the NSA revelations will tend to increase economic espionage against U.S.

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Over at Forbes, John Villasenor has this interesting piece arguing that the NSA revelations will tend to increase economic espionage against U.S. companies:
In addition to spurring discussion on the tension between civil liberties and antiterrorism policies, the NSA leaks will have another, less widely recognized consequence: They will significantly increase the level of state-sponsored economic espionage directed against American companies. Why? Because many people overseas will view the NSA’s data collection itself as the defining attribute of the story, with less consideration of the larger American security context that frames it. Some of them will conclude that leveling the playing field requires ramping up their own countries’ efforts to eavesdrop on data from American companies. NSA is almost certainly using the data it gathers under PRISM and from Verizon (and perhaps other carriers) solely for identifying potential terrorism or espionage threats to the United States. It is exceedingly unlikely that NSA would use PRISM, for example, to help an American company gain a competitive advantage in a bidding war against a foreign rival. But perception can sometimes matter as much as reality, and some overseas observers appear to believe that the NSA surveillance has an economic component. As Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, reportedly said, “The German business community is on high alert . . . The suspicion in large parts of the business sector is that Americans would also be interested in our patent applications.” Surveillance in the name of national security is still surveillance, and last week’s developments remind us all in irrefutable terms that nations have often felt much freer to spy on foreigners than on their own citizens. What varies among nations is the set of priorities that motivate the eavesdropping. In the United States, national security provides the motivation. For some other nations, the goal of maximizing economic success in the global marketplace is viewed as justifying espionage against foreign companies.
I suspect Villasenor is right about this. As Jack has argued many times, the U.S. position on cybersecurity is not exactly a model of consistency---amounting in effect to shock that anyone would conduct cyber attacks on us. Our position on espionage is similar: We engage in it unapologetically for our strategic purposes but we object strenuously to other countries---whose strategic purposes may be more economic than ours---conducting espionage against our companies.

Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.

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