Why spy? That’s the several-million pound question, in the wake of the Snowden revelations. Why would the US continue to wiretap its entire population, given that the only “terrorism” they caught with it was a single attempt to send a small amount of money to Al Shabab?
One obvious answer is: because they can. Spying is cheap, and cheaper every day. Many people have compared NSA/GCHQ mass spying to the surveillance programme of East Germany’s notorious Stasi, but the differences between the NSA and the Stasi are more interesting than the similarities.
The most important difference is size. The Stasi employed one snitch for every 50 or 60 people it watched. We can’t be sure of the size of the entire Five Eyes global surveillance workforce, but there are only about 1.4 million Americans with Top Secret clearance, and many of them don’t work at or for the NSA, which means that the number is smaller than that (the other Five Eyes states have much smaller workforces than the US). This million-ish person workforce keeps six or seven billion people under surveillance – a ratio approaching 1:10,000. What’s more, the US has only (“only”!) quadrupled its surveillance budget since the end of the Cold War: tooling up to give the spies their toys wasn’t all that expensive, compared to the number of lives that gear lets them pry into.
IT has been responsible for a 2-3 order of magnitude productivity gain in surveillance efficiency. The Stasi used an army to surveil a nation; the NSA uses a battalion to surveil a planet.
Spying, especially domestic spying, is an aspect of what the Santa Fe Institute economist Samuel Bowles calls guard labour: work that is done to stabilise property relationships, especially the property belonging to the rich.
The amount a state needs to expend on guard labour is a function of how much legitimacy the state holds in its population’s reckoning. A state whose population mainly views the system as fair needs to do less coercion to attain stability. People who believe that they are well-served by the status quo will not work to upset it. States whose populations view the system as illegitimate need to spend more on guard labour.