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Robert Price

Many Americans consider the federal government’s domestic security challenges daunting enough to justify the acquisition of confidential customer data from U.S. telecoms. Other Americans consider those once-secret arrangements outrageous violations of our most basic privacy protections.

But Americans on both sides of that debate are almost certainly in agreement when it comes to the Chinese government. We don’t trust them. We can’t tell where China’s espionage network ends and legitimate Chinese corporate interests begin. We don’t have a clue about the level of cooperation between the Chinese military and civilian leaders of Chinese industry. The Chinese market is vast and still largely untapped, but the wise American CEO knows that digital pick-pockets of disquieting origin conceivably lurk around every corner.

The U.S. is different, though. Right? Well, not so much, at least not in the eyes of many former and would-be foreign business partners. In light of the massive National Security Agency surveillance program exposed by hero/traitor Edward Snowden, it should be clear to everyone that the details of one’s personal business could end up in a virtual manila folder somewhere in Fort Meade, Md.

The Cloud Security Alliance, a nonprofit group that focuses on the cloud storage industry, polled customers last summer and found that 56 percent of the 207 non-U.S. residents surveyed said their company was less likely, post-Snowden, to work with U.S. vendors; 10 percent said they had already walked away from a project with a U.S. storage provider.

NSA intrusion hasn’t just invaded the lives of ordinary Americans, it has essentially cast a shadow over allU.S.commerce, from mom-and-pop techie start-ups to Google and AT&T.

We’ve seen a “loss of trust in American business, particularly the technology sector,” Peter W. Singer, co-author of "Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know,” told NPR last week. “... Mass data was being vacuumed up in the back door.”

The result is what Singer calls “a whisper campaign” against U.S. companies that were once seen as not just innovative but also reliable and secure.

And we were supposed to be the good guys, remember? Turns out our government has more in common than we’d like to think with those persistent Chinese hackers we keep hearing about.

Twenty-thirteen was an eye-opening year. We learned not only that our government has been snooping on us at an alarmingly pervasive level for years, but it’s been eavesdropping on our country’s best friends, too. Almost worse than the government slipping a virtual bug into your laptop is the fact that it’s been tapping the personal phones of allies like Germany’s Angela Merkel, whose country’s dynamic economy has been keeping Europe, and thus the world, from collapsing into chaos. Sure, we’ve got to be impressed that the U.S. spy apparatus employs hackers good enough to pull off that kind of feat, but still: It was a betrayal of epic proportion.

The events of 2013 have achieved this, though: We all know where we stand. The U.S., China, Germany, everyone. Our cards are on the table. We can and will spy on each other. Nothing personal. Yes, Chancellor Merkel, what U.S. spies did to our sense of mutual trust was rotten. George W. Bush probably slipped something into your purse during that unwelcome shoulder massage back in ‘05.

Sorry about that.

Is this the way of the world now? Is Ronald Reagan’s “trust but verify” maxim playing out a global scale? That’s a paranoid world I’d rather not get used to.

Three months ago, when Congress, to the world’s horrified astonishment, took the country to the brink of fiscal default, a Chinese newspaper editorial suggested that maybe the time had come for humankind to start looking to the East for guidance. Turns out that’s already happening. It’s just not the type of guidance anyone would have hoped for.

Email Robert Price at Twitter: @stubblebuzz.