On Wednesday 4th June, Debating Europe will be partnering with the Security & Defence Agenda for its annual conference: “Overhauling Transatlantic Security Thinking”, taking place in Brussels from 14:30 to 18:30. One of the key issues being discussed will be cyber-security and how to respond to online threats.

We recently had a comment sent in by Olivier. He thinks that the biggest threat online comes from governments, not from criminal gangs or terrorists. Certainly, states have many times the resources of the average hacker group and, increasingly, cyber-warfare is being taken seriously by governments and not just thought of as a plot-device for the Bond movies.

In 2008, a cyber-attack on Georgia during the war with Russia was co-ordinated with Russian military actions on the ground. In 2010, a massive cyber-attack against Estonia paralyzed the country’s digital infrastructure, disrupting government websites, banking services and media. And the “Stuxnet” worm that was discovered in Iran in 2010 – suspected to have been deployed by the US – destroyed almost one-fifth of the country’s nuclear centrifuges necessary for nuclear enrichment. Then, of course, there is the recent NSA spying scandal.

We put Oliver’s question to Jamie Shea, Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Challenges at NATO. What did he think?

jamie-sheaWell, I think that we have to keep things in proportion. It is true that governments do access cyber-space, but often this benefits citizens, because our intelligence services are able to discover all kinds of very serious plots by monitoring the communications of suspected people. Had that monitoring not taken place then things as bad – if not worse – than 9/11 could have happened.

So, to some degree this is a legitimate activity. But, of course, all democracies recognize that there have to be limits, laws, and supervision relating to the way intelligence systems operate. And sometimes when we have issues like the NSA issue in Europe recently, we discover that we need to clarify the rules and that those rules need to be respected, and of course we need to have proper parliamentary control. It’s the old Roman question: who polices the police? Who guards the guardians? But we shouldn’t just look at one aspect of this because again, if we didn’t have intelligence services able to look into cyberspace, we would be much more under threat than we are.

We also had a comment sent in from Paul, who had a very different attitude. He said he couldn’t care less if the authorities chose to monitor his e-mails, because they wouldn’t find anything scandalous. Instead, he thinks monitoring everyone’s online activity helps combat terrorists and pedophiles.

jamie-sheaI mentioned a moment ago that it is a legitimate activity for governments to want to monitor communications. However, that is only if they have a reasonable suspicion of direct or indirect criminal, terrorist or illegitimate illegal activity. I don’t believe that there is a role for intelligence services to monitor the emails of every private citizen. This is not very good use of people’s time or public money.

And I think there have to be very firm privacy laws, like you see at the moment being discussed in the European Union. Therefore, we need something equivalent to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court run by the US Congress, for example, which has a legitimate role in supervising and approving requests by the police or the intelligence services to monitor people’s emails to make sure that monitoring only takes place when there are good, legitimate reasons to do so.

Which brings me back to the point I made earlier; the intelligence services are necessary – a must – and cyber offers them a means to access information that didn’t exist before. But sometimes the possibilities run ahead of the ethics, of the legal situation, and in every democracy we have to make sure that from time to time we re-calibrate these things by making sure that the police cannot do whatever they like – nor the intelligence services. They have to come under a proper legal framework and get proper authorization, which means giving their justifications before they do it rather than after they’ve done it.

It’s one thing to fight against cyber-criminals and hackers online, but what happens when those groups and individuals are being sponsored by states? Countries including China, Russia and the USA are suspected of occasionally using hackers as proxies in cyber-attacks. Is Europe doing the same? We put this question to Rini Goos, the Deputy Chief Executive at the European Defence Agency.

We’ve put together some facts and figures about cybersecurity and cyberwarfare in the infographic below (and you can click on the image for a larger version).


Does government monitoring of online activities help combat terrorists and criminals? Should you only be worried if you have something to hide? Does the EU need much stronger online privacy laws to help prevent abuse? Let us know your questions and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions!

IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – Yuri Samoilov

74 comments Post a commentcomment

What do you think?

  1. avatar
    Matej Zaggy Zagorc

    I doubt it. Any serious terrorist or criminal that can pose as a real threat is most likely smart enough to avoid such things. I mean, if they’re smart enough to prepare everything, months of planing and scouting, I doubt they’re stupid enough to send it over email. Just saying.

  2. avatar
    Iulian R.

    Why not, even I think governments must have better things to do.
    I have nothing to hide.

  3. avatar

    Of course I do. The idea that ” Monitoring everyone is the only way to catch one bad guy” it’s completely abusive and wrong. I am pretty sure there are ways to fight cyber crime, catching terrorists, pedophiles and spies without monitoring everyone. But I’m also sure that there is no rush in changing legislation regarding monitoring, there will be less work for secret services.

  4. avatar
    Breogán Costa

    Did they open and read my postal mail before Internet?
    So, YES, I don’t want anybody to read my personal e-mail.

  5. avatar
    Paul X

    When you mention to people about e-mail monitoring they all get up in arms because they think there is some little bloke in an office sitting there reading everybody’s love letters and gossip

    Considering the amount of online traffic that is a physical impossibility and the monitoring is done electronically and what it does is search for certain combinations of words that only paedophiles or terrorists are likely to use. If an innocent person chooses to use these particular combination of words then they are either stupid or deliberately inviting attention onto themselves

    As I don’t choose to put any explicit or terrorist related details in any of my online correspondence then I really doubt that anyone in authority is bothering to monitor what I send, which is exactly what I meant in my reply used in the subject of this thread

    • avatar

      What guaranties do I have that the info that are collected from my emails are not sold to higher bider third-party dot com’s ? Government’s word ?
      A certain medical condition that need special treatment or medication, for big pharmaceutical guys means gold as well for insurance firms. I know few companies that didn’t hire smokers because of higher insurance costs, or the overweight, older, divorced, depressed on Prozac people because of the same reason. You got the general idea, where and how personal info “collected” by big HR companies ( and others ) are used against your interests.

    • avatar

      @Ironworker, you pointed a relevant issue, the money. Should we allow them to do business with our information? What we get for it? taxes reductions or security or what?

      How to claim for a return and to put limits if we do not know their procedures?

  6. avatar

    If we can look at theirs they can look at mine

  7. avatar
    Mudasiru Bello

    Especially to al-qaida roro en suir or get off me back and phones and illegal home entry at anytime which the community are tired and fed up with, now what else did youghal- still waneed and driving around me for more and non stop police activities ?

  8. avatar

    It is easy to understand both the good and bad side of the huge power that information gives to state.

    – If I do not have anything to hide, then “why should I worry”?
    – But also, Why should I trust another human to watch over my private information? Even if it is a highly automated process, at the end there is someone taking decisions on it.

    It is technologically easy to break into, so it does seem a natural technological evolution but it should not be accepted as natural human evolution to accept domination or state paternalism.
    “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.” _ Benjamin Frankin.
    So we have to watch over our own motivations, as individuals and society.

  9. avatar
    Paul X


    The information anyone can gain from your e-mails is only what you put in them

    Personally I would not put anything in an e-mail that is very sensitive or personal to me, not because I’m afraid of official monitoring but because e-mails are very easily forwarded or misdirected either by mistake or maliciously

    Very personal details of people are routinely available online and these details are usually revealed by the person themselves either on social media or in e-mails to trusted online “friends”.

    The real threat to peoples private information is not from some “big brother” monitoring their online activities but from their own stupidity in what they reveal about themselves online

    • avatar

      Without disagreeing, it’s the principe that’s matter here. Having or not having something to hide or people not being aware of certain internet schemes and crooks it’s not relevant in the context. Why would you want to check on everyone mail unless there is something “lucrative” in that ? All started years ago under G.W.Bush doctrine “War on Terror” and neo-liberal Europe just embrace it right away. I’m a bit paranoid that’s why I’m behind proxy browsers such as Tor and hiding my IP and MAC address while browsing, using a Mac OS machine running Linux on a VM with a second wifi usb stick while not at home, encrypt my emails with a military grade encryption algorithm, encoding SMS’s with a 4 rotors Enigma Machine, and finally registering new (mail) accounts in obscure cafe’s without security cameras around while traveling abroad. And I guess that’s not good enough though, I do want keep two or three more surprise cards in sleeve when I have to deal with Big Brother. Just kidding : )

    • avatar

      You miss the metadata in your argumentation, also statistical inference that allows to make profiles built after studying patron behavior of millions of people, to classify people due to their word search in search engines, or “any patron behavior”.

      So they can do a profile with your digital footprints, so they can know some things about you that even you don’t noticed, or even they know you better than yourself.

      All our digital activity creates a source of information with a huge value, created by all us, and exploited by a few, and maybe it should be considered as a “natural resource”.

    • avatar


      Precisely. As my good afro-american friend Leeroy was sayin’ : “That’s wha I’m talkin’ bout”.

  10. avatar
    catherine benning

    Anyone who believes there is no harm in government, of any kind, having access to their private information is an ignoramus. And the pretense they make about this being needed as we have terror in our midst, is bull. Angela Merkel and other leaders are not in the line of business that would include such an analysis.

    I do not give my consent to anyone, government or otherwise, to infiltrate my private correspondence, or to search my health records or employment history, my social life or any other aspect of my privacy. For anyone from any organisation to do this without my knowledge or consent is illegal. As it is illegal, to do so is a criminal act they should be held responsible for and charged for. Not only their organisation or te government employers behind it, but personally held responsible for the act taken to access my information for a buyer of his/her service to do so. And they should be found guilty and incarcerated for taking such action.

    Sir Tim Berners-Lee gave us one of the greatest gifts of our time, the internet, and it should be used to do as suggested, to keep our leaders and those in league with them, in their place. To allow us to be abused by the dark forces behind these spies who invade us, is unworthy of the great men who gave us these incredible gifts in the first place.

  11. avatar
    Eva Christina Andersson

    Yes, of course I do mind!!!

  12. avatar
    eusebio manuel vestias pecurto

    Porque não a minha consciência esta limpa Os governos nacionais da Europa deviam preocupar-se com os problemas sociais das populações das suas nações

  13. avatar
    catherin benning

    I think the European people should worry a great deal over this spying issue, especially when the person being offered for Commission Presidency is a man who has been involved in spying scandals. Surely Europe deserves better than a reproduction of the NSA in its offices of power. .

    Juncker is connected to this scandal as we see here on the BBC. Yet we read he is being supported by the German Chancellor in his bid for more power.

    Here we read how this is disturbing some state leaders.

    Now I wonder why that is?

  14. avatar
    Tarquin Farquhar

    Shouldn’t the question be ONE of the following instead?:

    Do you mind if government sticks a probe up your jacksie to monitor all of your movements?

    Do you mind if government sticks a chip in your brain to monitor all of your thoughts?

  15. avatar

    All this nonsense about ‘if we do not spy on everyone more 9/11s will happen’. Pure scaremongering from those with nothing but contempt for liberty and privacy.

    All that spying didn’t prevent a single thing. Where was the CIA when two guys with a pressure cooker went to Boston? Where were all these ‘glorious’ intelligence agencies when some Syria ‘veteran’ decided to kill people in Belgium?

    There were nowhere! Probably too busy listening in to the chancellor of Germany and the president of Brazil.

  16. avatar

    The fact that we are even ASKED this is breathtaking!
    We should already be in the streets protesting and asking for *someone*’s head for this incompetence / malice!

    What’s next?
    Thought-crime? Mind control?
    The technology for it is already here. This is insane.

    Orwell was a visionary unfortunately – and his vision did not extend to just the communist regimes.

    • avatar
      Tarquin Farquhar

      @Ravin’ Rayven
      You refer to Orwell and yet you have previously tried to redefine the word “RACIST” and too you have frequently wanted to CENSOR people that air a point of view that you don’t appear to like. You really are a source of merriment.

      PS: I don’t know what Orwell book you’ve read – was it “1984½”? The revised/updated/approved book propounded by that great libertarian luminary Chairman Mao Tse-tung ?

  17. avatar

    “It is true that governments do access cyber-space, but often this benefits citizens, because our intelligence services are able to discover all kinds of very serious plots by monitoring the communications of suspected people.”

    If foreign governments monitor my communications it is criminal activity and a danger to our national security. This person is completely nuts. NATO is supposed to protect our national security.

  18. avatar
    Nando Aidos

    I do mind!
    Just as governments do not come and check what is in my home unless they have a warrant and good reasons to suspect my activities, they must not come into my email unless they have a warrant and good reasons to suspect of me.
    Just because it is easy to check my email (technology does that) it is not a good enough reason to come meddling into my private life!
    Instead, governments should check into corporate, political and military practices that create the conditions that foster crime, violence and so called “terrorism”, such as land grabs, oil exploitation, toxic dumping, etc..
    Those are excellent places where to start the combat on crime, violence and so called “terrorism”.
    Speaking of “terrorism”, let us not forget that in the 60’s all the African independence movements were called “terrorism”. And now they are not.
    So, the question is – what really is being labeled as “terrorism”? Those who fight for their rights? Or violent criminals? It is important to draw a line and stop these wanton and often convenient generalizations.

  19. avatar
    Rudina Pupriqi

    Governments should stop interfering in people’s privacy!! Find other way to catch terrorists created by you too!!

  20. avatar
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  21. avatar
    Jaime Martins

    Stop thinking like Americans, let’s be Europeans.
    We do not need wars to live, but rules for all Europeans in the same way.

  22. avatar
    Gatis Gailitis

    Jonna Proctor perhaps you had marriage issues because you’re a slag. Pictures on your profile are like soft porn.. Go back where you came from or stick to the topic.

  23. avatar
    David Fuzzey

    If My govt. monitors my email , i will accept it…but if your union does i will NOT.

  24. avatar
    Blagovest Blagoev

    Of course I do! EU is supposed to keep and protect our freedom and right of privacy, not to destroy them following the US manner. Europe is Europe, not US, not Russia, neither China! Keep your Internet monitoring out of the EU!

  25. avatar
    Andreas Philippou

    As long as the information is being used only from intelligence agencies and not being used against any Citizen at the courts there’s no problem with it

  26. avatar
    Luke Lamb

    no I do not mind if my emails are checked, I do like my privacy but if it means that such things like fraud or illegal activates are stopped then for that sake I would allow it. My personal stuff that is on my computer would probably be very boring to who ever was looking at it!!!! It also seems to me that if your computer or emails are being monitored this will be being done by a computer that is running an Algorithm that is looking for flagged words and sentences and smart criminals will be avoiding this anyway (criminals are normally one step in front of the police anyway!!) I think we all worry to much that our personal information is worth something, but in reality it is only worth something to us personally. The sooner we step on crime relating to the internet the better. I use the internet every day and for important transactions if some one like the EU is trying to keep this secure for me then they get my support 100%.

  27. avatar

    Yes. They proved their incompetence very loud, all over Europe

  28. avatar

    if your so worried about what their going to see you might as well go back to pen and paper!

  29. avatar
    Rory Burnett

    I can see why people wouldn’t like it but I don’t have anything to hide. I don’t mind if they go through my emails if it helps them.

  30. avatar
    Larry Lart

    This is a question to ask members of opposition political parties. Would they mind knowing that their political competitors, the government, read their email? Or the businessman of which competitor lobbies with the current government?

    For most people makes no difference, they will just be using automated tools/machines to look for patterns in al l that data anyway (my pc is violating my privacy everyday anyway).
    However this is extremely dangerous when you are a person of some importance, either in politics or business. And cases of corruption in governments are far from being extinct …

    If anything that I mind in this case is that again this is/will be a waste of time. Terrorist criminals, knowing that these mediums are being tapped will be using more sophisticated methods and even online there are any numbers of ways of masking the data which will make it impossible, even with the most powerful computing to date, to find, let alone decode. Perhaps this will help catching some dummy criminals but given that implementation of this monitoring system will cost the tax payer a lot of money, is just not worth it.

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