US surveillance is an obstacle to a truly democratic world order
Published: May 19, 2023 05:34 PM
Illustration: Liu Xiangya/GT

Illustration: Liu Xiangya/GT

It has been 10 years since Edward Snowden exposed the vast extent of the US' global surveillance. 

Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency, revealed the US government was secretly and indiscriminately scooping up vast amounts of data from millions of peoples' emails, phone calls, text messages and other digital records. 

The US performs this cyber espionage in collaboration with telecommunications companies and the "Five Eyes" intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand. Even Amnesty International, which does not focus on criticizing US foreign policy, attacked US spying activities Snowden exposed as constituting "human rights abuses on a mass, global scale." 

Snowden's revelations exposed that the US was secretly monitoring the emails, phone calls and text messages of world leaders, including politicians considered to be their close allies such as then Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel. The US was found to have spied on Brazil, France, Mexico, Britain, China, Germany and Spain. 

These revelations caused significant diplomatic tensions. In a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2013, the then Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff criticized US surveillance, stating that "meddling in such a manner in the lives and affairs of other countries is a breach of international law… it is an affront to the principles that should otherwise govern relations among countries, especially among friendly nations." In October 2013 Angela Merkel said she had told US President Obama that the US spying on friends is "not acceptable at all." 

Following the Snowden disclosures, critics around the world accused the US of violating the sovereignty of other countries by illegitimately acquiring information outside of diplomatic channels and using it to interfere in the countries the US was spying on.

Snowden is paying a high personal cost for exposing the truth. The US State revoked his passport in 2013. Exiled in Russia, he is wanted in the US on charges of violating the Espionage Act and faces the threat of serving up to 30 years in prison. 

In the decade following Snowden's watershed expose, the US has not retreated from its brazen spying operations. These activities continue to have a damaging impact on international relations.

In April this year, leaked Pentagon papers were published that show the US had been spying on South Korea at the same time as pressuring the country to arm Ukraine. A leaked US document describes a secret debate between senior national security officials on whether South Korea should send ammunition abroad that might end up in Ukraine. Democratic Party opposition leaders in South Korea denounced the US for breaching trust with an ally and "violating the sovereignty" of the country.  

In May 2023 a new report titled "Empire of Hackers" was released by China's National Computer Virus Emergency Response Centre and cyber-security company 360. The report reveals the technical means employed by the CIA to promote unrest around the world, including the use of cyber-weapons to spy on governments, infrastructure projects, research institutions and tech companies internationally. Researchers extracted various viruses and hacking tools that were traced back to the CIA.    

Despite the fact that the US's global surveillance programmes have been extensively documented and repeatedly exposed, Washington is persistently accusing China of being the main spying "threat" facing the world today.  

In February of this year a solitary Chinese weather balloon was blown off course into US airspace. The US administration seized upon this harmless incident to manufacture an international crisis - absurdly accusing China of using the balloon to "spy" on the US.   

Within the US there is also a major campaign pushing for a national ban of popular app TikTok on bogus "national security," with some politicians claiming China is using the app to spy on US citizens. No evidence has been produced to support these accusations. TikTok has proposed that the multinational computer corporation Oracle, which is based in Texas, use its servers to store TikTok data from US users to allay any concerns. If the real motivation behind the proposed US ban on TikTok was protecting US national security and not attacking China's economic development then this proposal would be accepted. 

TikTok is one of the world's most popular apps and is used by over 150 million people in the US. Rather than supporting a policy that US-owned social media companies continue to compete with TikTok, some US politicians prefer to eliminate competition through a ban. 

The hypocrisy of US accusations that China is threatening the world with espionage in the post-Snowden era is staggering. The US has the world's largest and most sophisticated surveillance system - a system essential to the US' goal of maintaining global hegemony, and that has been used to undermine both sovereignty and individual rights. It is a clear obstacle to a truly democratic world order. 

The author is a writer based in London and member of the No Cold War campaign international committee. This is the eighth article of the "Spying empire" series. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn