Skip to main content

Let the spies spy, let the cops chase terrorists

By Bruce Schneier
May 15, 2014 -- Updated 2122 GMT (0522 HKT)
NSA logo
NSA logo
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Author Glenn Greenwald's new book shows that NSA spies on many embassies
  • Bruce Schneier: Spying on foreign governments is what the NSA is supposed to do
  • He says what is dangerous is the NSA spying on entire populations
  • Schneier: We must separate espionage, a military mission, from broad surveillance

Editor's note: Bruce Schneier is a security technologist and the chief technology officer of Co3 Systems, a start-up focused on streamlining security and privacy incident responses. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- According to NSA documents published in Glenn Greenwald's new book "No Place to Hide," we now know that the NSA spies on embassies and missions all over the world, including those of Brazil, Bulgaria, Colombia, the European Union, France, Georgia, Greece, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Slovakia, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan, Venezuela and Vietnam.

This will certainly strain international relations, as happened when it was revealed that the United States is eavesdropping on German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone -- but is anyone really surprised? Spying on foreign governments is what the NSA is supposed to do. Much more problematic, and dangerous, is that the NSA spies on entire populations. It's a mistake to have the same laws and organizations involved with both activities, and it's time we separated the two.

The former is espionage: the traditional mission of the NSA. It's an important military mission, both in peacetime and wartime, and something that's not going to go away. It's targeted. It's focused. Decisions of whom to target are decisions of foreign policy. And secrecy is paramount.

Bruce Schneier
Bruce Schneier

The latter is very different. Terrorists are a different type of enemy; they're individual actors instead of state governments. We know who foreign government officials are and where they're located: in government offices in their home countries, and embassies abroad. Terrorists could be anyone, anywhere in the world. To find them, the NSA has to look for individual bad actors swimming in a sea of innocent people. This is why the NSA turned to broad surveillance of populations, both in the United States and internationally.

If you think about it, this is much more of a law enforcement sort of activity than a military activity. Both involve security, but just as the NSA's traditional focus was governments, the FBI's traditional focus was individuals. Before and after 9/11, both the NSA and the FBI were involved in counterterrorism. The FBI did work in the United States and abroad. After 9/11, the primary mission of counterterrorist surveillance was given to the NSA because it had existing capabilities, but the decision could have gone the other way.

Because the NSA got the mission, both the military norms and the legal framework from the espionage world carried over. Our surveillance efforts against entire populations were kept as secret as our espionage efforts against governments. And we modified our laws accordingly. The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that regulated NSA surveillance required targets to be "agents of a foreign power." When the law was amended in 2008 under the FISA Amendments Act, a target could be any foreigner anywhere.

Greenwald reacts to winning Pulitzer
Greenwald: I will definitely come back
NSA surveillance revelations
NSA reform and Edward Snowden

Government-on-government espionage is as old as governments themselves, and is the proper purview of the military. So let the commander in chief make the determination on whose cell phones to eavesdrop on, and let the NSA carry those orders out.

Surveillance is a large-scale activity, potentially affecting billions of people, and different rules have to apply -- the rules of the police. Any organization doing such surveillance should apply the police norms of probable cause, due process and oversight to population surveillance activities. It should make its activities much less secret and more transparent. It should be accountable in open courts. This is how we and the rest of the world regain the trust in the actions of the United States.

In January, President Obama gave a speech on the NSA where he said two very important things. He said that the NSA would no longer spy on Angela Merkel's cell phone. And while he didn't extend that courtesy to the other 82 million citizens of Germany, he did say that he would extend some U.S. constitutional protections against warrantless surveillance to the rest of the world.

Separating espionage from surveillance, and putting the latter under a law enforcement regime instead of a military regime, is a step toward achieving that.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT