We just had a story about how Australia used its equivalent of the NSA to do economic espionage
for the sake of improving trade deals and helping private companies by passing along useful info they gleaned from spying on the Japanese. It had become so common that companies getting the info would joke that it had "fallen off the back of a truck." Of course, many have argued that the US is obviously engaged in similar activity. The most damning evidence, of course, was the release a few months ago of details of how the NSA spied on Petrobas
, the Brazilian oil giant.
The US has sworn up, down, left and right that it does not
use the NSA for economic espionage. In August, the Department of Defense issued a statement
to the Washington Post saying:
“The Department of Defense does engage” in computer network exploitation, according to an e-mailed statement from an NSA spokesman, whose agency is part of the Defense Department. “The department does ***not*** engage in economic espionage in any domain, including cyber.”
Those triple stars were in the original. That was before the Petrobas revelation. After that came out, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper tried to explain that away
, arguing that it was not for economic espionage at all, but to get a better sense of whether there was an upcoming financial crisis.
What we do not do, as we have said many times, is use our foreign intelligence capabilities to steal the trade secrets of foreign companies on behalf of - or give intelligence we collect to - US companies to enhance their international competitiveness or increase their bottom line.
Of course, it's a very blurry line between using that information to create policies that help US companies and just giving the information to them directly. Perhaps it's true that the NSA doesn't hand out the information it gleans from foreign companies directly to US companies to help them understand, say, how a foreign product is built -- but reverse engineering is pretty good these days, so it's doubtful that too many US companies need that kind of help anyway. Instead, it seems to be just as nefarious, and certainly a form of economic espionage, to use this information to create trade policies that clearly boost certain US interests
But that's certainly happening. The NY Times' giant profile of the NSA's activities
that came out earlier this month included a list of "customers" for the NSA. Pay close attention to the last two on the list:
This huge investment in collection is driven by pressure from the agency’s “customers,” in government jargon, not only at the White House, Pentagon, F.B.I. and C.I.A., but also spread across the Departments of State and Energy, Homeland Security and Commerce, and the United States Trade Representative.
Now, one can make a (potentially compelling) argument that of course
it's US policy to try to improve situations for American companies. And that's perfectly reasonable -- but it seems like a clearly bogus argument for the NSA to say it "does not do economic espionage" just because it (allegedly) does not do one particular tidbit of economic espionage: directly handing companies information. If, instead, it's spying on foreign companies and then providing that information to the USTR, you can assure that two things are happening: economic policies that help the special interests that have a close relationship with the USTR are getting extra favorable policies in their place, and some of that information is seeping out of the USTR to those companies anyway.
And we've already seen, repeatedly, how the USTR appears to have very cozy relations with certain legacy industries
, while having almost no relationship at all
with younger, more innovative industries. As such, not only is the NSA clearly engaged in economic espionage, it's doing so to the detriment of actual innovation and economic growth, by using this information to prop up legacy industries, while handicapping the innovative industries.