Do Foreigners Worry About Being Spied On?

Matthew Yglesias postulates that Spying on Foreigners Is a Big Deal.  And, you know, I believe it’s a big deal, and I’d like foreigners to believe it’s a big deal, but I wonder if they actually do, and, as a corollary, whether there is actually any pressure on our big internet companies to repudiate NSA access to their data.

After all, it’s pretty clear that the NSA spies on Americans, and many Americans don’t seem to regard that as a big deal, through what I describe as Security Through Banality.  This is usually expressed as “I don’t have anything to hide,” but what I think it means is, “The things I have to hide are no different from what millions of other people have to hide, so probably nobody will ever bother to target me in particular.”

I think that labor-saving computation makes security through banality less secure now than it ever has been, but  most of the ways that the government might harass you are things that only your government will do.  The overwhelming majority of Germans don’t need to fear an IRS audit.  Most foreigners will never even enter the US, even as tourists.  What do they care if the US government adds them to a watch-list?  If our citizens don’t fear the numerous ways that their government can harass them, why would someone whose exposure is generally lower worry more?

There are some possible answers:  foreigners might have a less rosy (and, I’d argue, more realistic) view of the US government than US citizens do.  They might just have a sense of national outrage that a foreign power is spying on them.  They might more justifiably worry that if there is a serious charge made against them, something really horrible will happen to them (more Guantanamo, less IRS audit), and they’ll have less recourse.

But the US isn’t going to try to disappear millions of Europeans or Japanese or the like.  And the other concerns are more principled and less practical.  Do you really move from gmail to an inferior product, as a basically banal foreigner, because of the NSA?

I hope the answer is “yes.”  I suspect the answer is “no.”


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