Like it or loathe it, espionage is part of a State’s foreign policy arsenal and any State which doesn’t practice it to some degree is missing a trick. Knowing what your allies as well as your enemies are planning before it occurs allows you to take advantage of any developing situation. Thus State spying will only cease when the whole concept of the Nation State ceases to exist…
… and even then the idea won’t die as trying to gain a jump on your competitors is only natural – corporations do it, sports teams also and so do individuals. When it takes place on the sports field or in the exam hall we call those practise it cheats – but outside?
For what we term the ‘advanced democracies’ military conflicts these days are generally remote affairs and so cross-border espionage is as likely (if not more) to be about the commercial and industrial secrets of our trading partners than state or military ones.
Any threat to these countries generally comes, these days, from single or groups of dissatisfied individuals (either internal or external) who look to conduct random acts of violence (or ‘terrorism’) against either civilian, military or governmental targets out of hatred, as a method of protest or misguided revenge, or for other petty reasons.
It is these people whom Western governments are more concerned about these days but whom it is much harder to spy upon as there are laws (and civil liberty concerns) about spying on domestic populations which simply do not apply to foreign ones.
Previously the smarter governments (UK, USA to name but two) have got around the need to have court authorisation for domestic signals intelligence (SIGINT) gathering (which they wouldn’t have got) by exchanging the information they collected on each other’s populations. The rise of the internet and changing technology has made this harder though and as a result attempts are made by governments (prompted, possibly, by their internal security apparatuses) to monitor populations directly, trampling over and, often, completely ignoring the civil liberty infringements which accompany such a move.
The problem with large-scale data collection, as laid out over at The New Liberty in regards to the ongoing PRISM relevations, is simply that so much data is transmitted electronically these days that it is highly improbable that it could all be stored by central government. Much more likely is that they store the metadata (still a not inconsiderable amount).
Secondly, governments who choose to undertake such mass surveillance have to process the data collected. By far the vast majority of what they collect will be static, stuff that needs to be filtered out in the search for useful information. Programming techniques will deal with a lot of this but they will still be left with false-positives which need to be examined by human beings before they can be safely discarded. There will also be false-negatives – and these may not be discovered until after something horrible occurs.
Even once any useful information is uncovered, governments need to have the human resources (HUMINT) in order to be able to analyse and follow-up on it – whether this means getting a court order to obtain more detailed SIGINT on the subject or just the number of warm bodies necessary to conduct long-term surveillance operations against them. Then you have to check every person the target comes into contact with just to work out whether or not there is a possible connection.
Spying on people can be a time-consuming, labour intensive and potentially fruitless task… and attacks will still happen. Attacks which will lead to calls by useful idiots and the media (but I repeat myself) for yet more surveillance, more restraints on liberties and thus more static to be sorted through in order to find the proverbial needle in the haystack…