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Spying in a Transparent World: Ethics and Intelligence in the 21st Century

GCSP Geneva Paper – Research Series n°19

Release Date:

November 2016

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Is intelligence gathering ethical? Three years after the Snowden revelations on mass surveillance and ten years after the emergence of extraordinary rendition scandals, the debate on the role of ethics in intelligence gathering has never been as prominent, and is dominated by opposing perspectives. On the one hand is the view that the very nature of intelligence work is unethical, but such work needs to be done to protect national security. On the other is the view that it is precisely this unethical nature that undermines the legitimacy and security of democratic states, and is therefore unacceptable. The rise of this debate is due to two trends: the increasingly transparent environment in which secret intelligence activities occur, and policymakers’ public assertions on the crucial role of intelligence in protecting national and international security.

The growing emphasis on intelligence has led to unprecedented concern with its practice in Western liberal democracies, particularly as a result of collection efforts in the combat against terrorism. The response from the public and civil society actors to scandals around extraordinary rendition and mass surveillance has been a resurgence of a fundamental debate on the extent to which democratic laws and values are being compromised to protect national security. This paper provides an analysis of current thinking on the relationship between ethics and intelligence in liberal democracies, the challenges posed by the increasingly complex 21st century security environment, the ethical dilemmas that emerge as a result and prospects for ethical intelligence gathering in the future.