Spying for National Security Reasons vs. Spying for Economic Gain

In a surprising move, the United States has indicted members of the Chinese military on counts of cyber-espionage in stealing trade secrets from American corporations for the benefit of Chinese companies. Members of the Chinese government have dismissed the charges as ridiculous, and noted the hypocrisy of the United States in light of revelations about the NSA. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. has in turn responded that such comments reveal a lack of understanding of a distinction of spying for national security reasons versus spying for economic gain. Is such a distinction tenable?

Obviously the stealing of trade secrets undermines some of the incentives for innovation in a competitive marketplace, but I’m not interested in this distinction for the economic ramifications but rather for the underlying morality of such a distinction, and the consequences it has for our assessment of the justness of large-scale surveillance by the NSA. Espionage for national security reasons and for economic gain both entail the acquiring of information about an entity without ones permission or knowledge, but it seems that only in the latter case is theft occurring, because the one acquiring the information is materially rewarded for taking that information, and the one who’s information is acquired is materially harmed, through a reduction in market share to their now more competitive competitor. It could be argued that with spying for national security, theft does not occur because the one who’s information is acquired is not materially harmed, but benefitted in a non-material way in being protected from threats to national security. I suspect that all of this is painfully obvious.

The generalized conclusion that seems to follow from this is that stealing is the taking of something from someone without their permission in such a way that harms them, but that it is not an act of theft to take something from someone without their permission if it is not in such a way that harms them. It’s difficult to find an analogy for the theft of information, because there are few things that can be “taken” without taking it away from the possessor. Rather than this entailing that information theft just is different from other forms of theft in not removing something from a possessor, I think this should lead us to revise our conception of ‘information theft’ as being the act of removing some of the capabilities that that information provides. Again, I suspect that this is painfully obvious.

My point in all of this is that there is an important sense in which even if all of the broad surveillance conducted by the NSA does not prevent any attacks, the information they have gathered will have, in at least one way, not caused a (non-terrorist) person harm, in that acquiring the information of innocent citizens does not take away any of the capabilities of that information for that person. This entry thus stands against other entries I have written wherein I argued that if such surveillance did not prevent any attacks, the peace of mind created by surveillance does not justify that surveillance, and that regardless of the success of surveillance, the feeling of constantly being monitored by an omniscient viewer goes against the egalitarian principle of being treated with respect. I still think that the overall arguments of those entries are right, such that there are things that make large-scale surveillance unjust, but theft of information is not included in those reasons, as there is an important sense in which the NSA is not stealing our information.

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