Electronic Espionage: 15 years of inertia (Le Monde Diplomatique, September 2013)

Edward Snowden is in the midst of one of the most dramatic intelligence leaks in our lifetimes. Leaving aside the drama of his personal situation, his revelations have confronted the world with the previously-hidden reality of mass Internet surveillance. The leaks are exactly the right information at the right time, igniting world-wide concerns about Internet privacy. The words “metadata” and “Prism” entered common vocabulary almost overnight. The last time that the US National Security Agency (NSA) and electronic surveillance were world news like this was over a decade ago, when a European Parliament report declared that “all email, telephone and fax communications are routinely intercepted”. The public learned about a global NSA surveillance system called Echelon. Headlines said “Global spy network revealed” and “Europeans angered by US espionage”. Le Monde attacked Britain for using the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) to spy on its European partners, Microsoft was accused of assisting NSA monitoring and the Washington Post reported “a wave of concern and indignation in Europe.” The controversy culminated in a year-long European Parliament investigation called the “Temporary Committee on the ECHELON Interception System”. The Echelon system had been first revealed publicly by British journalist Duncan Campbell in a 1988 article. He described a system that captured vast quantities of telecommunications around the world and used computers to search for messages containing ‘keywords’ of interest to the intelligence agencies: the arrival of industrial-scale surveillance. My 1996 book Secret Power carried this on, plotting the world-wide network of Echelon stations and quoting staff inside New Zealand’s electronic intelligence agency who explained their daily use of Echelon to target emails and faxes. But one article and a book in faraway New Zealand don’t grab much attention. Two years after the book, a European Parliament researcher highlighted the information and Echelon leapt to prominence. The Echelon committee reported its conclusions in 2001, including radical proposals for the countries of Europe to protect themselves from Anglo-American surveillance. The committee agreed the Echelon system definitely existed. The EU governments were urged to “promote, develop and manufacture European encryption technology” to be available as “the norm” for all citizens and European institutions. It was an historic moment and seemed the beginning of action to protect privacy in the era of Echelon-style surveillance. But it was not to be. The final Echelon report was presented to the European Parliament on the fateful date of 5 September 2001. As privacy and human rights groups celebrated the decisions, no one could know it would all be swept away. Four days later, the hijacked passenger jets flew into the World Trade Centre in New York. In the war on terror years that followed, the scale of surveillance increased rapidly. Monitoring of citizens was normalised amidst fears of terrorism, and public concerns had little influence in the environment of insecurity and war. Now, twelve years later, the wheel has come full circle. The political environment is similar to the time of the Echelon controversy. When the new pope visited Brazil recently, three million people crowded on to a beach to welcome him; two weeks later, when the US secretary of state visited, the news headline was “Kerry, on visit to Brazil, gets earful over NSA spying”. There is deja vu in Europe, with headlines like “EU confronts U.S. over reports it spies on European allies”. The crucial ingredient is the arrival of Edward Snowden and the evidence he is providing about current-day NSA surveillance. The NSA is the largest and the most secret of the US intelligence agencies. Leaks are rare and major leaks are even rarer. Several factors combine to explain how Edward Snowden could turn up with the perfect leak at the perfect time. First, there has been growing public unease about surveillance of the Internet. But there has been a frustrating lack of solid information about what really occurs. Vastly more of a person’s life is stored and communicated electronically than a generation ago. The potential intrusion and loss of privacy is enormous. But it is hard to take action when everything is secret. At the same time as digital technology gave us the Internet and social media, it was also allowing previously unimaginable tools for intercepting them. When I first wrote about the Echelon system, the agency technicians were only in the early days of getting used to capturing and processing email. The Echelon stations were targeting satellite and microwave communications. But, until Snowden, the world knew very little about how the great flows of Internet data were being captured. Echelon and later “Echelon for the Internet” have been primarily about nation-to-nation communications. Over the same years, the FBI was pushing for standardised laws and systems for monitoring communications within each country. There are now laws in many countries requiring all Internet and telecommunications companies to install ‘interception capable’ equipment and allow intelligence agencies access. This is known by the self-justifying label “LI”, lawful intercept. Snowden’s revelations about interception of Gmail, Facebook and Microsoft are about intelligence agencies using this built-in intercept capability. The other big influence in this period was of course the war of terror. Exaggerated concerns about terrorism and ‘security’ resulted in huge intelligence budget increases and unrestrained expansion of surveillance capabilities and powers. The final ingredient was the crucial one: the example of Wikileaks. This is the simple and potent idea that leaking in the digital age provides a powerful way to counter excesses and abuses of power; that publicising information hidden from the public can be the key to opening space for democratic action. The US and other governments have tried hard to discourage people from following the example of Bradley Manning and Wikileaks. But the example is compelling. Edward Snowden is the next in this tradition and he is in the process of changing the world.

References: European Parliament, “Scientific and Technical Options Assessment, an appraisal of technologies of political control”, 6 January 1998. “European Parliament resolution on the existence of a global system for the interception of private and commercial communications (Echelon interception system)”, 5 September 2001.