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Deal breakers of digital fortress

Deal breakers of digital fortress
In the light of Edward Snowden’s recent revelations about mass surveillance programmes on American and foreign soils by their largest intelligence gathering organisation, the National Security Agency, numerous questions on privacy, sovereignty, trust and freedom have been raised. The debate is manifold. However, at this juncture, these revelations have brought to light how NSA has real time access to personal information stored by major US technology companies such as Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook, which form the bedrock of internet connectivity around the world. They also have the ability to conduct mass interception of data from global telecommunication networks.

According to the interview conducted by Glenn Greenwald formerly from The Guardian, who first broke the story, Edward Snowden said, ‘I, sitting at my desk could wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email.’ A computer programme called XKeyscore is used to access all data that includes your personal chats, emails, etc. All a NSA analyst requires is your personal email id or your IP address.  This information is used and stored without any warrant, jurisdiction (in cases of diplomatic missions and foreign soil) and little public oversight. All such surveillance falls under a top secret $20 million a year programme code-named PRISM. British intelligence, GCHQ, in cohorts with NSA, accesses information stored by the PRISM programme.

However, what has really caught the eye is mass surveillance on foreign citizens, in areas where the US government has absolutely no jurisdiction. The rationale given by the US government boils down to protection of American citizens against terror attacks. However, revelations by Edward Snowden disclosed how the NSA spied on conferences where economic agreements were being negotiated, on oil companies, heads of allied states and an entire population in certain cases. Germany, Spain, France and most notably Brazil have taken strong exception to such mass surveillance programmes. Nevertheless, before we get into the specifics of how the above countries reacted to the news, an understanding must be established regarding the gravity of these disclosures.

In an article dated 7 July, Glenn Greenwald said, ‘That the US government — in complete secrecy — is constructing an ubiquitous spying apparatus aimed not only at its own citizens, but all of the world’s citizens and has profound consequences. It erodes, if not eliminates, the ability to use the internet with any remnant of privacy or personal security. It vests the US government with boundless power over those towards whom it has no accountability. It permits allies of the US — including aggressively oppressive ones — to benefit from indiscriminate spying on their citizens' communications. It radically alters the balance of power between the US and ordinary citizens of the world.’

Initial reports by Der Spiegel, a German daily, based on documents leaked by Snowden,  had brought to the fore that American intelligence service stores data from half a billion telephone calls, emails and text messages in Germany every month. As per The Guardian, such mass surveillance on ‘allied’ or ‘friendly’ states is part of NSA’s FAIRVIEW programme. Under this programme, NSA partners with a US telecommunications company, whose identity is yet to be revealed.  This telecommunications company then enters into a partnership with telecoms in foreign countries. The partnership allows the US company access into that country’s telecommunication services and that access is then exploited to direct that traffic towards NSA’s repositories.

Recent revelations have brought to light shocking details of how the NSA has tapped into German chancellor Angela Merkels’ personal phone for the last 10 years, even before she was elected to Germany’s highest post. America’s reaction to these disclosures, all but confirmed it. The source for this sort of surveillance, according to the daily, might emanate from the US embassy in Berlin, which is in close proximity to the Chancellery. Strangely enough, it was the latter revelation that brought forth a stern reaction from German authorities. A strongly worded personal phone call to Barack Obama from chancellor Merkel was followed by a statement in the European Union summit in Brussels on 24 October which said, ‘Now trust has to be rebuilt.’

In France, the reaction to the entire episode was even sterner. Reports had emerged from the French daily Le Monde, which said that more than 70 million phone calls in the country had been recorded in one 30-day period late in 2012. In light of these revelations, the French government summoned the US ambassador in Paris, demanding urgent explanations over claims of mass phone and internet surveillance. French president Francois Hollande also made a personal phone call to Barack Obama, reportedly berating him on the subject and saying such actions were ‘unacceptable between friends and allies’ and demanded an explanation. These disclosures have upset the balance between major European players and America. The extent of it was felt at an EU summit in Brussels, where on 25 October, both Merkel and Hollande felt that such breaches of trust could jeopardise the war against terror due to a trust deficit.

In a period of détente with South America, recent revelations of mass snooping in Brazil did not do America too many favours. In the larger scheme of things Brazil’s reaction has been the toughest so far.  Again, what triggered off this scathing response were reports emanating from Brazilian newspaper O Globo, which reported on 17 September that the NSA snooped into president Dilma Rousseff’s communications.  Further reports accused the NSA of spying on Brazil’s largest oil company, Petrobras. One of the 30 biggest companies in the world, majority owned by the state, it is a major source of revenue for the government. Currently, it is developing the biggest oil discovery of this century in the Atlantic. The president cancelled her 23rd October trip to the White House. Instead on 24 September, at a United Nations general assembly meet in New York, Rousseff went on a scathing offensive against the NSA’s actions.

In a direct riposte to Barack Obama, over justifications for such snooping, she added, ‘The arguments that the illegal interception of information and data aims at protecting nations against terrorism cannot be sustained. Brazil, Mr President, knows how to protect itself. We reject, fight and do not harbour terrorist groups.’ In probably the biggest indictment against NSA’s mass surveillance, she added, ‘In the absence of the right to privacy, there can be no true freedom of expression and opinion, and therefore no effective democracy. In the absence of the respect for sovereignty, there is no basis for the relationship among nations.’ As days go by, further revelations of such mass surveillance programmes conducted by the NSA arise. Disclosures on 28 October include reports that 60 million phone calls in Spain were monitored from 10 December, 2012, to 8 January, 2013, according to Spanish daily El Mundo. In reaction to these disclosures, the Spanish government has already summoned the US ambassador in Madrid, demanding an explanation.

According to documents leaked by Snowden, India figures in the top five among those countries where NSA conducts mass surveillance. Besides this, these disclosures revealed that sophisticated bugs were implanted in telephones and computers at the permanent mission of India at the United Nations in New York and the country’s embassy in Washington DC. These crucial nerve centres of Indian diplomacy were subjected to the kind of snooping whereby copies of entire hard disks and data straight from computer screens were sent to the NSA. Thereby vast quantities of emails, internet traffic, and phone and office conversations were being monitored by US intelligence agencies. In our UN mission, we have offices to India’s permanent representative, a minister and political coordinator, a Colonel rank military advisor, several secretaries involved with India’s engagement with the rest of the world and other such important personnel.

Besides impinging upon our sovereignty with mass surveillance conducted at home and our foreign missions, extensive damage might have been done to India’s stand on key economic negotiations with the west, peacekeeping operations around the world, UN security council reforms among others.  An Indian diplomat speaking to The Hindu said, on condition of anonymity, ‘We are still assessing the damage. If they managed to copy our hard drives, nothing is left to imagination.’

Another report by The Hindu, dated 24 September, goes onto confirm that most of the communications targeted by the NSA in India were not terror related. A top secret NSA document titled ‘A Week in the Life of PRISM reporting’, shows ‘Sampling of Reporting topics from 2-8 Feb 2013’. A top Indian diplomat, speaking on conditions of anonymity, told the The Hindu, ‘As politics, space and nuclear (programmes) are mentioned as “end products” (official reports that are distillations of the best raw intelligence) in this document, it means that emails, texts and phones of important people related to these fields were constantly monitored and intelligence was taken from them, and then the NSA prepared official reports on the basis of raw intelligence. It means they are listening in real time to what our political leaders, bureaucrats and scientists are communicating with each other.’

Such brazen disregard for our sovereignty ideally should have evoked a response that at the very least admonished our ‘ally’. However, India’s disposition in this regard was meek, at best. On 2 July, external affairs minister Salman Khurshid, reacting to reports that India was the fifth most tracked country, said, ‘This is not scrutiny and access to actual messages. It is only computer analysis of patterns of calls and emails that are being sent. It is not actually snooping on specific contents of anybody’s message or conversation’. Quite clearly it is not just a case of the US government monitoring call logs or email addresses being used.  Something is amiss. This statement was made despite our external affairs ministry initially terming these disclosures as ‘unacceptable’. These fears need to be responded with greater scrutiny, as technology used by the NSA is improving by the day, with enhancements in data storage capacity and transcribing details of personal telephonic conversations, text message and emails in real time.

Besides some uncomfortable truths, these disclosures have brought to light a shifting ground in terms of how geo-political disputes might play out in the future with radical advancements in technology. In a New York Times article, dated 1 July, 2013, it was said that during his first months in office, Barack Obama, had secretly ordered constant cyber-attacks on computer systems that run Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities. Code-named ‘Olympic Games’, these attacks were initiated by the previous Bush administration. However, it is alleged that the Obama administration went into over drive with this programme. The Snowden revelations have displayed how far ahead America is when it specifically comes to cyber surveillance. Germany has already recognised the distance and a complete revamp of the German intelligence unit is to begin shortly. Other countries have also been alerted, and some are working towards enhancements in intelligence gathering. India’s lame duck reaction doesn’t espouse too much hope. The degree of subservience to the US government and the lack of alacrity is baffling to say the very least, considering how exposed we have come to be in recent years.
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