Privacy: time to kiss it goodbye
Shakespeare, being a genius, got most things right. But, being human, he also got a few things wrong. A rose by any other name does often smell like a weed.
One dangerous misnomer is this entity called an intelligence agency. These organisations, a consistent growth industry in every nation whether times are lean or prosperous, are information accummulators. Intelligence may or may not be a by-product of their endeavours. Look no further than the case of the latest American whistleblower, Edward Snowden.
America's spymasters lost this plot long before Snowden broke cover and revealed massive incursions by US and British agencies into private lives. Their rage reflects the fury of impotence, or perhaps incompetence. Snowden did not hit and run. His sting took much preparation: he copied data, and then established contact with Julian Assange's Wikileaks and China, at the very least. Directly or indirectly, China, Russia and Ecuador knew what he was going to do before he moved. CIA, NSA and FBI were blindsided. America's intelligence was shipwrecked in an ocean of information.
One would assume, after the Wikileaks fiasco, that there would be alert mechanisms to track any unauthorized transfer of secret data by an insider. Wrong. Neither was there any security firewall between Snowden and either a pest like Wikileaks or a foreign power like China, although both must be equally high on CIA's watch list. If you imagine Snowden landed in Hong Kong by flipping a coin, you must be in kindergarten, still reading fairy tales. Conversely, if you believe China ignored the US demand for extradition because of a typing error in the application, your sense of humour is almost as nuanced as the Chinese official who thought up that whopper. The Chinese ran this operation for precisely as long as they wanted to, or Snowden would never have left Hong Kong, even if he had managed to enter this semi-liberal enclave of an authoritarian state. Snowden's story got top play in local media; and he was accompanied by a Wikileaks executive on his ride to Russia, both impossible without a silent nod from Beijing. Snowden went to Hong Kong because he was certain of a Chinese umbrella. And in Moscow, of a Russian shield. Try boarding a flight a Moscow without a valid visa on your passport. You won't get beyond check-in. Absolutely do not consider making Moscow airport a temporary residence, unless you are certain local police won't put you on the next flight to anywhere. Nor will Ecuador's friendly diplomats drop by to say hello without Kremlin's permission.
At the moment of writing, Snowden is discovering a few facts of life. Heroes have limited uses when playing cloak and dagger; the dagger can change direction in the switch of a blade. China, Russia and Ecuador were happy to use Snowden in the secret wars that continue below the surface of good relations, but reluctant to damage bilateral business with Washington beyond a point. Big boys like America carry aces up their sleeve when they sit at any table.
For some time now America has been ratcheting up an international offensive against China's invasion of cyberspace. This was high on the agenda of the summit between Barack Obama and Xi Jinping in California earlier this month. China's President kept an admirable straight face while his shadow-security infrastructure timed this double-whammy to a nicety, producing Snowden just when American protests hit a crescendo.
While spy fact imitates spy fiction, the world must come to terms with a difficult truth. Privacy, a cornerstone of individual liberty in a free society, now belongs to the past tense. America, the world's largest people-friendly democracy, and China, the world's largest people-friendly dictatorship, have used war as the excuse and technology as the means to monitor the language, and through that the thought process, of any individual they want to target. If other nations, including Russia or India, have not succeeded as spectacularly, it is not for want of trying.
Governments know something that idealists are loath to admit: the argument for liberty does not travel very far with the populace when it is positioned against terrorism. The progress towards a free society has been led by a liberal elite that flourishes in the calm of peace, and bends before the hurricane of conflict. Barack Obama turns into George Bush. Obama knows that total information is the dream of every totalitarian, but will not intervene. He is in politics. Politics is about survival first and consequences later. For every Snowden briefly on the front page, and in limbo for the rest of his life, there are dozens defeated by helplessness. That is how a state defines victory over the individual.
Obama invited Xi Jiang for their summit in California to a place called Rancho Mirage. What an excellent title for a sequel to George Orwell's 1984.