Recent revelations by Edward Snowden of alleged National Security Agency spying on European leaders has sown mistrust in historic alliances. While European leaders may feel victimized by the privacy breach, they and their governments are unlikely to have much to fear from the collected data.
Ironically, however, the two countries that may possess and at first glance profit from Snowden’s data, China and Russia, are also the countries most vulnerable to the information. A treasure trove of terabytes could actually become a digital poison pill in disguise.
It is not farfetched to assume the U.S. government is also collecting, to a greater degree, on countries of interest, like China and Russia. Given the pervasive level of corruption in both governments, it is equally fair to believe Snowden’s data if released to the public could expose graft, moral misdoings, and underhanded political maneuverings.
Huazhong, a Chinese blogger who exposed a corrupt Chinese official, analyzed the official’s watch collection by reviewing media photos. If an average Chinese citizen, who lacks spy satellites and listening posts, can uncover corrupt Chinese government officials through bling analysis, certainly a well-resourced U.S. intelligence community can as well. The more important the foreign official, the more likely he or she is a target of bloggers or foreign intelligence services.
What are the potential implications? First, the Chinese and Russians leaders, who shield elite politics and value regime stability above all else, may limit the data review to a trusted few, as they themselves may be exposed. Any delay in data analysis and dissemination may decrease its value and give the NSA time to modify collection strategies.
At the same time, if the data is released and does expose corruption, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, who have already launched widespread anti-corruption campaigns to combat public backlash, may strengthen their positions by proving that they are responsive authoritarian governments. However, if there are more “tigers” (high-level officials) than “flies,” (mid-level officials) the Chinese Party, for example, will have to reassess its reactions, leading to uneven punishments and potential political instability.
The data also poses a real threat to Russian and Chinese government officials who engage in underhanded political maneuvering against the elite. Foreign governments, to include the U.S., likely place a premium on collecting data on this topic to assess a government’s stability, especially in nuclear-armed nations. Depending on the nature of collection, the level and scale of the maneuvering, the perceived threat by the elite, and their response, the data could lead to purges, reorganizations, and, as a result, instability.
While conventional wisdom would appear to promote the Chinese and Russians as the biggest benefactors in Snowden’s disclosures, they are likely presented with challenges on how to review, disseminate and action the data. While the information could strengthen their positions, the disclosures also have the power to destabilize the two regimes.
Robert Garrett concentrates in Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. government.