Famous spies like Kim Philby fascinate the popular imagination because of their moral complexity.
If there is one thing that the recent indictment of Chinese spies by US authorities shows, it is that spying is commonplace. I mean by “spying” the use of covert and usually illicit means to get sensitive information not available through public channels. Spying is not confined to security services gathering data on enemy militaries or terrorist organisations. Allies spy on allies, commercial groups spy on rivals, governments sponsor spying on various sectors of other countries’ economies to gain an advantage for their own. Research and development data can be of key interest in this respect.
Economic spying is what was at stake in recent US irritation with China. The US had long been warning China of its disquiet over such activities, and at last lost patience. The indictment of the Chinese spies, citing names and issuing photographs, was a sign of that.
Is spying moral? Some would argue that it is necessary, and necessity knows no morality. From our armchairs we look down on such arguments; expediency has committed too many crimes in history for us to listen—at least when ensconced in our cushions. But out in the chill arena of practicality, things look different. The fact that others are spying on us—so some argue—is a good enough justification for returning the compliment, not out of pique but because advantage and disadvantage in matters of information translates into such solid facts as factories opening and closing, and people gaining or losing jobs: real things happening to real people.
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Does pragmatism override morality in this sphere? If an entity such as a government or a business steals information from another entity—say, potentially useful results of research paid for by the latter—then it is not only a criminal but a moral transgression. Harm has been done, injustice perpetrated: that is what interests morality. Merely watching another entities’ activities—where the entity is a corporate body, not an individual (the default on individual privacy is that it should be sacrosanct)—in a way that amounts to neither harm nor injustice is not immoral, though it might well be illegal in a given jurisdiction.
Some would think that Chinese prying into US companies’…