Monday, September 23, 2013

NSA spying and the threat of terrorism/spying/cyber war etc etc

Ever since the former NSA employee Edward Snowden revealed the extent of NSA’s and GCHQ’s internet spying there has been a backlash against the secretive and obviously unlawful operations of NSA and its allies.

On the one hand people have complained about the indiscriminate interception of the entire world’s internet and phone traffic, while the other (much less numerous) side, made up of people associated with the NSA and the US intelligence community, has tried to make the argument that even if certain laws were broken it was all in the interest of ‘national security’.
According to their side people should just shut up and deal with the complex realities of cyber warfare, internet spying and all that jazz. Oh and of course we shouldn’t listen to Snowden cause he’s just a Chinese/Russian spy and has psychological problems and and and.

That strategy was more or less effective at the start of this story and I remember that many (independent?) media started focusing on Snowden and not on the Orwellian policies of the NSA.
It is a testament to the professionalism of Snowden’s collaborator Glenn Greenwald that important material is released in a steady basis, so the media aren’t overwhelmed by the information. This means that critics have to focus on the NSA activities and cannot sidetrack the discussion with accusations about Snowden’s motives or his personal life.

This strategy of the Snowden team has left the ‘defenders of the realm’ holding their dick in their hands (as we say in Greece) 
Now the question of surveillance/spying and the limits that have to be imposed is a difficult issue. The defenders of the NSA can claim that they need to intercept everything, subvert codes and break computer software because that will help them arrest spies, terrorists and other bad guys.

Looking back through history it is interesting to compare their efforts with the activities of the British intelligence agencies during WWII.
The Brits had to deal with foreign states like Germany, Japan, Italy and the Soviet Union that had extensive espionage networks throughout the world and were often supported by other ‘neutral’ countries.

Although in 1939-40 British intelligence was woefully inadequate during the war their performance picked up and they were able to dismantle enemy networks and build up their presence in ‘neutral’ countries like Spain, Turkey, Sweden and Switzerland.
In their efforts they were assisted by signals intelligence. The German intelligence agency Abwehr used the Enigma G cipher machine for communication between main stations. This device was ‘solved’ by the Brits in late 1941 and most traffic in the period 1942-45 was solved. Agents abroad relied on hand ciphers, mainly substitution systems. Again most of these could be solved by Bletchley Park during the war.

Through signals intelligence the Brits were able to learn quite a lot about the German spy networks and the Abwehr OOB.
Notice that their operation was targeted, they didn’t intercept everything nor did they have to treat their own population as a security risk. Mail was checked for secret writing and microdots but in this case we are talking about a time of war not peace like today.

All these measures must have saved Britain! If it wasn’t for the ‘defenders of the realm’ then obviously they’d be speaking Deutsche and eating weisswurst today. Or maybe there is another explanation?
Let’s have a look at the official history ‘British Intelligence in the Second World War: Volume 4, Security and Counter-Intelligence’ as it should clear things up. In page 280 it says that wartime successes in counterintelligence depended on a combination of factors, the most important being:

Great Britain being an island, it was possible in war-time to impose strict control of entry which could not be easily evaded. The vulnerable back door via the uncontrollable frontier between Northern Ireland and Eire was protected by the Eire government's vigorous action against the IRA and its determination that Eire should not be used as a base for espionage or sabotage against the United Kingdom. Besides this geographical advantage, in 1939 and throughout the war the United Kingdom had a homogeneous population in which patriotism was still regarded as a cardinal virtue and which, apart from a numerically insignificant minority, was deeply hostile to the Nazi regime. What the Security Executive described as the 'different loyalty' of the leadership and indoctrinated cadres of the CPGB helped Germany only incidentally, and only until she attacked the Soviet Union in June,1941.
So maybe instead of intercepting our internet and phone traffic the Americans can follow these simple guidelines:

1). Make sure their borders are secure and work with Canada and Mexico to ensure this.
2). Have faith in the patriotism of their countrymen to report suspicious activity and deny help to evil spies, terrorists, hackers etc.

But doing something so simple would mean the US intelligence budget would need to be much smaller than 50 plus billion, wouldn’t it?


  1. The significant difference is that whilst it's reasonable to expect one's own country's Security Service to monitor its citizens' communications, it is also reasonable to expect that Service to try to protect its citizens' communications from a 3rd party. We in the UK do NOT welcome our theoretical ally, the US, prying on everything we mere citizens do.

    There are implications for our companies commercial trade negotiations with US counterparts.

    Imagine the furore from US citizens & companies when/if they discover China has already had access to every item of their communications.

    1. 'it's reasonable to expect one's own country's Security Service to monitor its citizens' communications'

      Ehm no it is not reasonable to do that without a clear goal in mind. If I have some kind of connection with terrorist groups, far right/far left movements etc etc then it probably means I’m a ‘person of interest’ for the ‘defenders of the realm’ and I’ll be monitored.

      If I don’t belong in any of these categories why should the State have access to my confidential communications?

    2. "...... it's reasonable to expect ...."

      As in:- it's not unexpected that ........

      I agree that all-pervasive surveillance is unreasonable. And, that it is reasonable to presume that it occurs.