‘Espionage’ or spying is as old as early civilization and is well documented throughout history. It involves a government or an individual obtaining information considered confidential, without the permission of the holder of the information. From ancient Greece to modern civilization, spying has played an intrinsic role in shaping our world today. According to Chanakya’s Arthasastra, Chandragupta Maurya made use of spies and ‘secret agents’, the Mongols in the 14th century relied heavily on spying in their conquest of Asia and Europe, feudal Japan used ‘ninja spies’ to gather information and the Aztecs used ‘Pochtecas’, a professional long distance trading class, as spies and diplomats with diplomatic immunity. The cold war had seen spying like never before, with the US and Soviet Union collecting information about each other’s nuclear programs. The Soviet Union preferred human resources where as the US relied mainly on technological methods.
With the invention of the Internet and mobile devices, spying in the 21st century has become an issue of considerable importance. Thanks to Mr. Edward Snowden, former US intelligence operative, today we have much information about the risks of ‘Cyber Espionage’. Just a year ago he revealed certain confidential secret documents about the inner workings of America’s intelligence agency called the NSA to the major news networks around the world. Mr. Snowden said he acted in this manner as he found the extent of US surveillance “horrifying”.
The NSA has certain intelligence gathering programs such as the ‘XKeyscore’ program — a secret computer system that enables almost unlimited surveillance of online activities of anyone, anywhere in the world. Another program called ‘Boundless Informant’ — a data mining system that keeps track of how many calls and emails are collected by the security agency while monitoring phone calls. But the most alarming of all is a program called ‘PRISM’ that intercepts and collects actual content from the networks on specific issues not related to terrorism, through Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, Apple, YouTube and many other web based services.
According to the documents revealed by Mr. Snowden, the US National Security Agency has access to information sent by web-browsers on sites visited along with the time of visit. From Google, they have access to email threads, online contacts and even search queries on the popular search engine. From Facebook, they collect status updates, photos or videos shared, wall posts, comments on other posts, chat conversations and location information. “I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things… I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded,” said Mr. Snowden.
“You can’t have 100% security and also then have 100 privacy and zero inconvenience,” said US president Barack Obama defending their surveillance tactics.
“Most cloud providers, and certainly the market leaders, fall within the US jurisdiction either because they are US companies or conduct systematic business in the US. In particular the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments (FISA) Act makes it easy for US authorities to circumvent local government institutions and mandate direct and easy access to cloud data belonging to non-Americans living outside the US, with little or no transparency obligations for such practices,” said Mr. Axel Arnbak, a researcher at the University of Amsterdam’s Institute for Information Law. According to documents Mr. Snowden published on Monday, 30th June 2014, the US FISA court gave the NSA ‘broad leeway’ in not only conducting surveillance on six political parties including the Bharatiya Janata Party but also a list of 193 foreign governments including India. The other five political parties that the NSA had authority to spy upon were Amal of Lebanon with links to Hezbollah, the Bolivarian Continental Coordinator of Venezuela with links to FARC, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian National Salvation Front and the Pakistan People’s Party. The documents further revealed that the FISA court authorized the NSA to snoop on the Internet and telephone communications of the World Bank, United Nations, OPEC and the European Union. “These documents show both the potential scope of the government’s surveillance activities and the exceedingly modest role the court plays in overseeing them,” said Jameel Jaffer, Deputy Legal Director for the American Civil Liberties Union.
When asked why a friendly country like India was subject to so much surveillance, a spokesperson of the US government’s Office of the Director of National Intelligence said: “The US government will respond through diplomatic channels to our partners and allies. While we are not going to comment publicly on every specific alleged intelligence activity, as a matter of policy we have made clear that the United States gather foreign intelligence of the type gathered by all nations.” The spokesperson clearly failed to mention how they managed to pick so much data from India — 13.5 billion pieces of information in just one month, especially from its telephone networks and whether they had received cooperation of Indian telecom companies. As a matter of concern, India was subject to the most surveillance in all the BRICS nations. When asked about the NSA surveillance, the former External Affairs minister, Salman Khurshid said, “We had an issue, which was discussed when Secretary Kerry was in India. He made a very clear explanation that no content has been sought or received of any email… So, I think as far as we are concerned, there is no issue today.”
While the European Union and the US regard each other as good friends, the US monitored 38 embassies and diplomatic offices including offices of the EU, France, Italy, Greece and other European countries. Moreover, the US was also monitoring head of states of 35 countries, including German Chancellor Merkel, Brazilian President Rousseff and the UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon. In a statement, the EU Justice Commission said it was ‘concerned’ about the consequences of PRISM for EU citizens and was ‘seeking more details’ from the US authorities. “Where the rights of an EU citizen in a member state are concerned, it is for a national judge to determine whether data can be lawfully transmitted in accordance with legal requirements (be they national, EU or international)”, said a spokesperson for Justice Commissioner Vivane Reding.
“The US government can have access to much of the world’s data, by default, with no recourse”. Most telecommunication companies, even government departments, financial systems and security fields are using American software on a large scale. The effect of having this global data collected at such a magnitude could have consequences never seen in history.
“By accessing metadata, you can learn an awful lot about an individual. With mobile phone, location data has now been added to metadata. With the Internet, you can in addition understand someone’s location in a social network in much more detail, as well as understand how that network relates to other networks. If you put all of this together, you get quite a detailed map of someone’s movements, who they hang out with and what drives their lives,” said Anja Kovacs, project director at Internet Democracy Project, a New Delhi based group working for online freedom of speech.