Leiden Safety and Security Blog

Keeping an Eye on Big Brother

Is it possible to organize forms of oversight regarding the international cooperation between intelligence agencies? A question that, although not new, currently has received attention both from academics and politicians due to the revelations by Edward Snowden. The international dimension of intelligence operations does not only refer to international cooperation between intelligence services, but increasingly to the internationalization of intelligence collection. As a consequence of technological and market transformations intelligence collection has become footloose and can be conducted remotely. That way, it leaves the concepts of national sovereignty and national oversight mechanisms increasingly obsolete. This also affects the academic study of oversight on intelligence services which traditionally focused on institutionalized oversight. At least two new perspectives for studying oversight seems promising.

First, the commodification of personal data could be a pretext, as the almost unlimited availability of personal data and communication patterns in the hands of the ‘first-line collectors’ or private intelligence multinationals like Google, Facebook and Apple is an important part of current intelligence practices. The coming economic battlefield or ‘data war’ could be about the question of how much a company has to pay an individual in order to obtain the right to use and process these data - which could set an important limit on the unhindered collection, storage and exploitation of personal data which, in turn, also limits or hampers the opportunities of intelligence agencies to harvest data.

Second, scholars should acknowledge that almost every intelligence scandal has been revealed by investigative journalists and/or whistle-blowers. None by the institutions formally in charge of overseeing intelligence. Whistle-blowers like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden therefore represent at the moment the de facto counter-powers when it comes to oversight. This manifestation of ‘regulation by revelation’ deserves more academic attention.

The facts therefore suggest that currently prime oversight actors are situated in civil society and institutionalised oversight is chiefly a secondary actor or mechanism: only when the reality of internationalized and privatized intelligence collection is being exposed or challenged by civil society actors does institutionalised oversight come into play. From a normative, liberal democratic point of view this division of roles is maybe far from satisfactory. However, as internationalized intelligence collection turns nodal and hybrid, the academic study of oversight should act accordingly.

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