Damaging though revelations of government eavesdropping may be, they prompt an overdue public conversation on use of technology, a panel of experts discussing geopolitical risks during Bloomberg’s “The Year Ahead: 2014” conference said Wednesday night.
“We need a public debate about all these issues… in terms of trust,” said former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, now chairwoman of the Albright Stonebridge Group. “What worries me is that there is a disconnect in what is going on,” in terms of what citizens understand about the government’s surveillance techniques.
Albright said the full potential of technology, even for civilian use, is not yet fully understood. Social media, she said, has its advantages, giving individuals the ability to voice their opinions on matters of public interest or warn of impending disasters.
It does, however, create a “disaggregation of citizen voices,” she said, “so it’s hard to get from Tahrir Square to governments.” In other words, Abright said, a barrage of online citizen voices can make it hard for governments to gauge a unified sentiment.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Albright said.
European Union ambassador to the United States João Vale de Almeida of Portugal said the rapid development of technology outpaces a government’s ability to figure out how to regulate it. That imbalance stirs controversy, such as the outcry over the National Security Administration’s surveillance techniques.
“We can basically listen to anyone anywhere at any time,” Vale de Almeida said.
Panelists said the security revelations from former U.S. contractor Edward Snowden, as well as allegations of NSA spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, resulted in America losing some trust with Europe. The breach will be difficult to repair, they said.
“The real issue is political judgment for political leaders about whether the methods of collecting information are worth the risks,” said Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
In addition to being forthright about the government’s use of technology, Daalder said maintaining trust with international allies depends on how the United States acts to protect its own interests abroad, such as seeking a nuclear nonproliferation deal with Iran.
“Our core interests are very much at stake here [Iran] and in the rest of the world,” Daalder said. “Does that mean we can solve every problem in the Middle East? No.”
Albright said American diplomats often face a ”damned if you do, damned if you don’t” problem in weighing the nation’s involvement in international affairs.
But she said, “The president has made very clear from the first day of his first term that he cares about nuclear proliferation and that particular agenda and also about an economic agenda internationally.”