Gentlemen don't read other gentlemen's mail (repost from 2004)

One of the more tiresome points being made in relation to the revelations from Edward Snowden is that there is nothing really new here. And, of course, it’s true that, if you’ve been paying careful attention to all the news on this topic, disregarding both official assurances and the wilder conspiracy theories, and thinking through the implications, the material leaked by Snowden is more confirmation than revelation. But, sad to say, that’s not the case for most of us. I think I’ve been paying more attention than most, and I still learned a lot from the latest news.

That’s all a preamble for a repost of a piece I wrote in 2004, in relation to an earlier revelation along similar lines, with a link to an even earlier piece from 2001, making the general case that secret intelligence is useless.

Gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail (repost from 2004)

The news that British spies bugged the office of Kofi Annan during the Iraq debate has a number of implications. First, for me, this is the point at which Tony Blair should go. The whole idea of going to the UN for authority to invade Iraq was his, not Bush’s, and now it’s clear that it was corrupt from the beginning. I won’t argue this in detail – no doubt a lot of people already thought he should go, and others still won’t be convinced.

The main point I want to make is that it’s time for Britain to get out of the spy game. More than any other democratic country, Britain is addicted to spies and their natural counterpart, Official Secrets. From Burgess and McLean to the present day, the spies have been a constant cause of embarrassment and worse. On the other hand, there’s no evidence that they’ve ever found out anything that was both useful and sufficiently reliable to act on (in this context, I’m excluding wartime codebreaking, which is always useful since, at a minimum, it disrupts enemy communications).

This isn’t a matter of bad luck, or even incompetence. Standard game-theoretic reasoning shows that, outside the zero-sum case of war, there’s unlikely to be a net benefit from actions like bugging offices. The problem is simple. If I bug your office and you don’t suspect me, I can gain potentially valuable information that you don’t want me to have. But if you suspect me, and I don’t suspect that you suspect, you can use my bugs to mislead me. As with all game theoretic reasoning, you can iterate this as many times as you like, but the end result is that the net value of information derived from bugging is zero. On the other hand, the costs of the activity are substantial. In an environment where bugging is routine, everyone learns to communicate in various forms of code, and decoding is costly and prone to error.

He’s often been dismissed as hopelessly naive, but US Secretary of State Henry Stimson was right when he shut down the State Department’s cryptanalytic office saying “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.”

h4. Notes

I’ve treated Clare Short’s allegation as fact, since Blair hasn’t denied it. His claim that he can neither confirm nor deny it for security reasons doesn’t hold up. Short made the specific claim that she had seen transcripts of Annan’s conversations. Blair could refute this claim without reference to whether or not such transcripts existed.

The argument about the uselessness of spies is developed at much greater length in this piece I wrote for the Australian Financial Review The conclusion:

The spy myth clearly served the interests of intelligence agencies, which prospered during the 20th century more than any set of spies before them. The real beneficiaries, however, were the counterintelligence agencies or, to dispense with euphemisms, the secret police, of both Western and Communist countries. The powers granted to them for their struggle against armies of spies were used primarily against domestic dissidents. Terms such as ‘agent of influence’ were used to stigmatise anyone whose activities, however open and above-board, could be represented as helpful to the other side.

The supposed role of the secret police, to keep secrets from opposing governments, was, as we have seen, futile. Secret police, and the associated panoply of security laws, Official Secrets Acts and so forth, were much more successful in protecting their governments’ secrets from potentially embarrassing public scrutiny in their own countries.

As spies and the associated fears have faded in their public mind, their place has been taken by terrorists. In many ways, this is a reversion to the 19th century, when the bomb-throwing anarchist was a focus of popular fears and the subject of novels by such writers as Chesterton and Conrad.

As the attacks of September 11 showed us, the threat posed by terrorists is real. Nevertheless, even if terrorists were to mount attacks ten times as deadly in the future, they would still present the citizens of the Western World with less danger than we accept from our fellow-citizens every time we step into our cars.

If the century of the spy has taught us anything, it is that we need to assess the dangers posed by terrorists coolly and calmly rather than giving way to panic.

37 thoughts on “Gentlemen don't read other gentlemen's mail (repost from 2004)

  1. Can we bug everybody in the country? Yes we can.

    Way to go Obama. Libertarians occassionally think that whilst voting left won’t lead to lower taxes it might at least lead to greater respect for civil liberties or reforms that promote social freedom. Such thinking is usually proved wrong. Gillard won’t support same sex marriage, Obama believes in war without limits, both of them still behave as if tough on drugs is a good idea. A waste of space both of them. Increasingly the parties of the left are just authoritarians with glitzy slogans. And apologists for the destruction of liberal ideals.

  2. Some observations, in no particular order:

    I have just enjoyed a great chuckle at the news that Edward Snowden left Hong Kong. Legally. The US extradition demand was defficient in certain particulars rendering it non-compliant with Hong Kong law.

    Hilarious that the US gets poked in the eye by someone arguing “rule of law” and “due process”.

    Snowden is thought to have gone to Moscow. The US will probably have as much luck trying to bully the Russians into doing an ‘extraordinary rendition’ as they did with the Chinese.

    They stomp around telling everyone what to do and finally they are getting told to go get stuffed – and the people telling them have the advantage of using US hypocrisy to do it.

    If anyone hasn’t seen “Team America” they really should. The computer was called “I.N.T.E.L.L.I.G.E.N.C.E.”, and when it sent the Team on a futile and costly mission (which involved a lot of killing and destruction) they remonstrated: “Bad I.N.T.E.L.L.I.G.E.N.C.E”.

    As of yesterday, 40 Australian soldiers have died in Afghanistan (or maybe that includes Iraq? Not sure whether they are two wars or now one) because 9/11 was supposed to have only been possible because of the Taliban running Afghanistan. Also, something about women and girls.

    Here we are 12 years later and the US is doing a deal with the Taliban because the Taliban is winning the ‘war’, just as they won against the Russian invasion. The Russian invasion was so heinous that we had to boycott the Moscow Olympics.

    All those dead soldiers, Afghans and all that destruction for absolutely nothing.

    Maybe now that a large part of the rest of the world is finally holding the US to the ridicule and account it deserves we may see a tiny lessening of the sycophancy of Australians.

  3. what do people think the NSA was doing. police can look at phone numbers without a warrant too. if the NSA was not collecting phone number traffic, they would be incompetent.

    on the utilities of spies versus critical analysis see The Contribution of Economists to Military Intelligence During World War II by MARK GUGLIELMO

    abstract: Economists working at the Office of Strategic Services estimated enemy battle casualties, analyzed the intentions and capabilities of both enemies and allies, and helped to prepare for negotiations regarding the postwar settlement.

    Economists working at the Enemy Objectives Unit helped to select enemy targets for bombing.

    Finally, economists working at the Statistical Research Group worked on a variety of problems brought to them by the U.S. military services. As a consequence of their usefulness during the war, the military continued to employ economists after the war.

    economists used labour economics and demographics to argue that germany lacked enough military age men to win; used monopoly theory to pick targets – bomb monopolies; and accurately worked out how many Tiger tanks the germans actually had; and the lack of militray value of bombing ball bearing factories – the real value was destroying the german air force.

  4. The HK press release (from www +

    The HKSAR Government today (June 23) issued the following statement on Mr Edward Snowden:

    Mr Edward Snowden left Hong Kong today (June 23) on his own accord for a third country through a lawful and normal channel.

    The US Government earlier on made a request to the HKSAR Government for the issue of a provisional warrant of arrest against Mr Snowden. Since the documents provided by the US Government did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law, the HKSAR Government has requested the US Government to provide additional information so that the Department of Justice could consider whether the US Government’s request can meet the relevant legal conditions. As the HKSAR Government has yet to have sufficient information to process the request for provisional warrant of arrest, there is no legal basis to restrict Mr Snowden from leaving Hong Kong.

    The HKSAR Government has already informed the US Government of Mr Snowden’s departure.

    Meanwhile, the HKSAR Government has formally written to the US Government requesting clarification on earlier reports about the hacking of computer systems in Hong Kong by US government agencies. The HKSAR Government will continue to follow up on the matter so as to protect the legal rights of the people of Hong Kong.

    Ends/Sunday, June 23, 2013
    Issued at HKT 16:05

  5. Very interesting commentary, Professor (and comments).

    Any suggestions as to how courts should handle cases where spooks claim “national security” as a basis for redacting text from judgments and withholding charges from accused people?

  6. @Dave

    As HAL might say: “Sorry Dave”.

    Without knowing the specifics, the best I can offer is that our courts apply the law.

    Our governments make the laws.

    If there is a law and the constitution allows such a law (so that spooks can do whatever they like, and of course there are many such laws to ‘protect us from terrrsts’) – the courts will have to apply it.

    I can’t believe my fellow Australians gave away what little rights and freedom they had so easily, but they did. Remember what they did to Dr Haneef? All ‘legal’.

  7. I would suggest that the statement “there is nothing really new here” isn’t really accurate in this case.

    The news is not that spies spy … that is old. The “new” is the disclosure that a relatively junior, temporary employee of a private company was able to walk out with volumes of supposedly secret information and correspondence. Also “new” is the public admission that it is “open season” on any data of a non-US citizen that happens to land on a server in the US.

    So, in this case, the employee chose to be a whistle-blower and go to the media, so we know about it. But what about those people who discover information they can used to make money? Say details of secret merger negotiations or inventions that have not yet been patented, and then simply use that information to improve their (or Booz Allen’s) business prospects?

    The real issue here is that with the information that has emerged, any non-US firm would be idiots to allow Google or Microsoft or any such US firm anywhere near any of their data. And that would be a huge distinctiveness to use Google Mail, or the new Office 365, or the various other Server based products US firms are trying to push. Thus, watch out for a wave of “local” competitors to US firms springing up, whose key selling proposition is that the data that goes through their systems won’t end up with your competitor in the US.

  8. Shouldn’t the model be: Row player: If the target isn’t careful, bug>don’t bug (as information is useful), if the target is careful, bugdon’t be careful, if not bugged, be careful<don't be careful (as taking care is costly). In other words a game with a unique mixed strategy equilibrium with some probability of bugging and useful information sometimes arising from it.

    The model you suggest only works if "taking care" is costless. But as you say that model leads to an equilibrium (don't bug, take care) which we don't see in the real world, so I suspect that spying will not stop, even when governments pay lipservice to the idea.

  9. That should have read: Row player: If the target isn’t careful, bug>don’t bug (as information is useful), if the target is careful, bugtake care (as precautions are costly) and if bugged, don’t be careful<take care.

  10. ” The real issue here is that with the information that has emerged, any non-US firm would be idiots to allow Google or Microsoft or any such US firm anywhere near any of their data. And that would be a huge distinctiveness to use Google Mail, or the new Office 365, or the various other Server based products US firms are trying to push. ” -Sam B.

    i wholeheartedly agree. this is inevitable & already happening with regard to cloud computing services for government in australia and the eu.

    large cloud service providers like fujitsu are investing in server facilities physically located within australia & thus subject to australian law, as this is the only way they can satisfy data security requirements and get the business of australian state & federal governments.

    eu data privacy guidelines prohibit the use of cloud services which do not meet strict eu data privacy standards, this requirement openly & specifically rules out the use by eu entities of any cloud service providers whose servers are physically located in the usa. -a.v.

  11. as a data warehouse the usa leaks like a sieve and its data businesses are subject to interference by a government which has no scruples and which is no longer constrained by the rule of law or the bill of rights. only certifiably mad foreigners would store anything of value in the usa. -a.v.

  12. australian governments won’t store their data on servers located in the usa because its not secure from unauthorized exposure through american discovery litigation.

    if the state wants you it’ll get you whatever constitutional or legal constraints on its action exist. for the routine abuse of the privacy of citizens by the state the usa would have to lead the pack followed closely by its branch plant britain.

    if business wants real data security it should store its data in the non-english speaking eu. switzerland for example is setting itself up as a cloud data warehouse with servers powered by solar. -a.v.

  13. Daniel Ellsberg wrote about the uselessness of secrets – there’s no point in having secrets if you can’t tell someone else.

  14. The question about the security of Australian data from the prying eyes of the US government came up in a conference I attended, maybe a year ago. I too thought that keeping my data onshore would afford me and my clients protection from US interference. According to the Australian communications lawyer who was speaking (I forget the conference’s name, let along the lawyer’s name!), there are enough bilateral security agreements between the US and Australia that there was effectively no protection afforded by onshore data storage.

    Until privacy erosions are reversed and the expectation of full privacy is enshrined into law, I don’t think it matters where you store your data – or even if it is encrypted or not. If they want it, they will get it, and it will probably be done legally.

  15. Look at the Washington Times, EDITORIAL: Total surveillance society. It’s online. So, the US has become the total surveillance society.

    It’s also the prison nation.

    “The incarceration rate in the United States of America is the highest in the world today. As of 2009, the incarceration rate was 743 per 100,000 of national population (0.743%). In comparison, Russia had the second highest, at 577 per 100,000, Canada was 123rd in the world at 117 per 100,000, and China had 120 per 100,000.

    While Americans represent about 5 percent of the world’s population, nearly one-quarter of the entire world’s inmates have been incarcerated in the United States in recent years.
    Imprisonment of America’s 2.3 million prisoners, costing $24,000 per inmate per year, and $5.1 billion in new prison construction, consumes $60.3 billion in budget expenditures.” – Wikipedia.

    It’s also the most militarised nation accounting for nearly 40% of the world’s military and spending as much as China, Russia, UK, Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Italy, Brazil and South Korea combined.

    In addition, the US civilians must be the most heavily armed population on earth who haven’t started an insurgency yet. The US population is arming itself as never before. The sales of automatic weapons, large magazines and ammunition are through the roof.

    “Gun sales at Smith & Wesson have hit a record high in a 12-month period that has been marked by some of the most horrific acts of gun violence in United States history. The manufacturer reported this week that sales for the year ending April 30 had hit a record $588-million, a 43% year-on-year rise. – Mail and Guardian.

    Australian importers are having trouble importing ammunition from the US as there is a shortage. (See ABC website.)

    On the government side of the equation, Homeland Security has ordered a 1.6 billion rounds of ammuntion. Google, “US ammunition shortage”. “… some of this purchase order is for hollow-point rounds, forbidden by international law for use in war, along with a frightening amount specialized for snipers.” – According to the Denver Post.

    “Add to this perplexing outré purchase of ammo, DHS now is showing off its acquisition of heavily armored personnel carriers, repatriated from the Iraqi and Afghani theaters of operation.” – Forbes online.

    Now, we have to ask ourselves where this is all trending. The powers that be in the US must know what is coming. The must know their economy will collapse (for the lower 80% or so) due to limits growth and global warming. One assumes they are planning to fight a hot war on their own streets with an insurgent population well armed with small arms. One point six billion rounds is claimed to be enough to fight such a war for twenty years.

  16. John, I wonder whether you accept the distinction often made between “offensive” espionage and “defensive” counter-espionage? Even if you think they should close down MI6, do you think the British should retain MI5? Or Australia ASIO? Or do you think that all government secrecy of this kind is bad and should be done away with?

  17. @Kirk

    You say that, in your set up, there will be a mixed strategy equilibrium in which there will be some bugging and some useful information gained. But in a mixed strategy equilibrium, strategies played with positive probability must have the same expected payoffs. This implies that, given the behaviour of the organisation being bugged, the expected payoff from bugging is no greater than the payoff from not bugging. The benefits from bugging, gaining valuable information when the opponent doesn’t take care, must be offset by the costs when they are careful, from being misled or simply wasting resources in the case where no worthwhile information is found.

  18. I maybe incorrect but they are not going to read any mail unless there is any suspicious activity.

    They are merely going to see where the mail is going from and to whom it is going to.

  19. @Kirk

    Following on from my last comment…

    This implies that your game is completely consistent with Professor Quiggin’s statement that “Standard game-theoretic reasoning shows that…there’s unlikely to be a net benefit from actions like bugging offices”. Compared with a situation where nobody bugs and therefore nobody has to take care/encode statements, the equilibrium in your game is one where the organisation doing the bugging is no better off and the organisation being bugged is worse off, since it has to take care part of the time.

    You’re right, of course, that in your single-stage game the socially optimal outcome of no bugging isn’t an equilibrium, but I’m pretty sure that would change in a repeated game framework, so it seems quite reasonable to advocate that outcome.

  20. the british used electronic intelligence to great effect in northern island.

    the IRA held their planning meetings in stolen new cars so the British bugged every new car shipped to N. Ireland.

  21. The Soviets managed to nick the US a-bomb plans, which is supposed to have sped up their own nuclear program.

  22. @Andrew
    The linked 2001 article argues that secret weapons represent the only case apart from wartime where there might be a case for the usefulness of espionage, but then goes on to say that the only really essential information is that the weapon is possible–armed only with that clue, several countries were able to put together teams of physicists that could build their own A-bombs without stealing secrets, and although Soviet espionage may have saved them a year in building the bomb, they would still have got there on their own, just a little more slowly.

  23. The off-balance US government has compounded the Edward Snowden folly by petulantly demanding that China and Russia hand the man back.
    The Surveillance State is required not by Americans but by Booz-Allen, Carlyle and others whose contributions pay for politician’s elections and therefore command favours back, which require vast taxpayer contribution for paying for the designed “service”.
    It’s a cognitive version of a “bridge to nowhere”, but as the detention racket has already demonstrated, there is much money to be made, provided the right decisions are made by politicians.

  24. so we hear today report of a high ranking marine, vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, the nation’s second ranking military officer, under investigation about classified information he’s alleged to have leaked about u.s. cyber attacks directed at iran. operation olympic games.

    so when the conditions are right even a general will leak. patriotism, or treason? or whistleblower on war mongers in high office?

    there aren’t enough fingers on all the spooks in america to plug all the holes in their wall of secrecy.

  25. But Snowden, Assange and Manning have been pointing in the right direction and it is debatable that what these people have uncovered is any less relevant than malfeasances uncovered during the era of Woodward, Bernstein and Ellsberg.

  26. “bob woodward book’s reveal far more than either snowden of manning”

    And most of it leaked from within the Administration by the subjects of his hagiographies, who will of course not be prosecuted.

  27. daniel elleberg in the heyday of the gutenberg era leaked xeroxed copies of pieces of paper taken from locked cabinets in locked rooms.

    the full pentagon papers are 7,000 pages, published in four paperback volumes, plus an index.

    the current leaks are like an industrial park of warehouses of pentagon papers. and they come with audio & video, too.

    compared to the pentagon papers bradley manning leaked:-

    (1) the Aaghan war logs comprising 91,731 documents.

    (2) the iraq war logs comprising 391,832 classified military reports .

    (3) the “cablegate” leak comprising 251,287 state department cables.

    snowdon has three laptops with terabytes of storage. the pentagon papers would fit in the boot directory of one of his laptops. -a.v.

  28. and woodward’s most recent “revelations” are all about the appearance of leak.

    as John Quiggin noted, no one fell from power lost status or went to jail over these leaks.

    they are using woodward like a tool. he adds a patina of authenticity to their shadow play of deception.

    post modern society is power mediated through simulacra, the appearance of things, the signifier having replaced the signified. -a.v.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s