Cover Story

Emergence of the Super Surveillance State

Volume 12, Issue 1  | 
Published 05/07/2015

That the intelligence agencies of the US and UK, the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and other 5-Eyes partners are engaged in illegal mass surveillance of global citizens, was made clear more than a year and a half ago with the Edward Snowden revelations. The extent of this surveillance still continues to shock us.

Dragnet Surveillance: The latest Snowden revelations show that the NSA and GCHQ hacked into the networks of Gemalto, the Dutch sim card manufacturer, in order to steal encryption keys. Germalto produces over 2 billion sim cards per year, and supplies them to over 450 mobile network operators globally in 85 countries. The stolen keys enable these agencies to monitor the bulk of mobile communications throughout the world, all without the approval or knowledge of telecom companies and foreign governments.

As we have learnt more and more about the nature of the mass surveillance, it has become apparent that the actions of the US have compromised much of our global communications system. Given the way the Internet is configured today, the bulk of the Internet traffic -- even where the sender or the receiver is not located in the US – passes through the US and is routinely intercepted by the NSA. The US has also broken into the global telecom infrastructure such as undersea cables, created backdoors in routers and servers and targeted end devices such as phones, PCs and laptops. the United States and its allies will spy on anything and anyone—using any means possible—to enhance their political and economic interests.

It is now clear that American technology companies such as Google and Facebook have given intelligence agencies complete access to the personal data of their global consumers. Companies such as Microsoft and Google have also permitted the NSA access to its code of software such as Windows, Outlook and Android, thus enabling NSA to break into computers, tablets and smart phones that use such software.

A recent article by Nafeez Ahmed details how the initial funding for Sergei Brin for what later became the Google search engine came from the MDDS project of NSA and CIA. Ahmed details that it is not just Google, ‘ is the entire Internet, and the wide range of private sector companies — many nurtured and funded under the mantle of the US intelligence community (or powerful financiers embedded in that community) — which sustain the Internet and the telecoms infrastructure; it is also the myriad of start-ups selling cutting edge technologies to the CIA’s venture firm In-Q-Tel, where they can then be adapted and advanced for applications across the military intelligence community’. The NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander, in his emails to Brin, described Google as a ‘key member of [the US military’s] Defense Industrial Base’.

Telecom majors such as Vodafone, Verizon and AT&T have permitted intelligence agencies to tap into their networks. They have even helped the NSA and GCHQ to break into telecom networks in other countries using their subsidiaries.

American multinationals have near monopoly status across the globe – from social media to search engines. This is a key part in enabling global mass surveillance. Facebook has over a billion users globally, a number that is rising largely due to a massive increase in users from developing countries. For instance, Facebook has a near 70% market share of social networks in Brazil and a similar number is estimated for India. Google, which conducts over 3 billion searches every day, accounts for over 95% market share in countries such as Brazil and India With users being seduced by the ‘free’ provision of services such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, these corporations are sitting on massive data that are of great interest to intelligence communities.

It is not that surveillance is something new in the world. What is qualitatively new is its dragnet character, storing it for 50 years or more, and machine analysis of the data using data mining techniques. It is putting everybody under the scanner for every instance of their lives – monitoring their phone conversations, all their emails, all electronic transactions, and even where they are at any given instance of time. Instead of the Eye of Sauron in Tolkien's Middle Earth, we now have the 5-Eyes on us all the time. This is what surveillance capitalism is all about.

Economic Hegemony: The US and its allies use their technological prowess to influence foreign economic and political processes, ranging from spying on climate change talks in Bali and Copenhagen to even carrying out surveillance on a US law firm representing Indonesia in a minor trade dispute regarding the import into the US of clove cigarettes and shrimp. However, the generalized and massive nature of the surveillance suggests, their aim is far more insidious. It is essentially to have dual capabilities. One is to map the entire population (as was done in the case Kenya), who is related to whom – what are called creating circle of influence maps – so that the US can identify key decision makers, and how to influence them. The other is to take down the information infrastructure and cripple a country during war.

Recent comments from the US clearly reveal how the Internet is viewed as a means for the US to continue its economic hegemony over the global south, and for this purpose, how it is essential to ensure that the Internet is kept ‘open’ and free of any regulation. In the words of Senator Ron Wyden, the ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee, ‘America’s trade negotiating objectives must reflect the fact that the Internet represents the shipping lane for 21st Century goods and services… US digital exports are beating imports by large margins, but outdated trade rules threaten this growth by providing opportunities for protectionist policies overseas. The US has the opportunity to establish new trade rules that preserve the Internet as a platform to share ideas and for expanding commerce...’.

By promoting free trade agreements that ‘aim to ensure that the free flow of information and data are the default setting for nations’ the US aims to ensure not only that its corporates control the new markets, but also that other countries cannot take action to prevent the free flow of information out of their countries and into the hands of the NSA.

We are often sold the line that mass surveillance is necessary in order to protect against political violence. This was the default argument made when the Snowden revelations were first published with various US government officials stating that information gleaned through mass surveillance had been used to stop more than 50 terrorist attacks in the US and abroad. However, these statements were soon shown to be false as two US Senators – Ron Wyden and Mark Udall – having scrutinized confidential documents of the intelligence agencies, reported that collection of phone records played ‘little or no role’ in the disruption of terrorist plots.

The inability of this surveillance to actually prevent terrorist operations was illustrated yet again in the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks in France. Even though the perpetrators of the attacks were well-known terrorist suspects and designated as high priority targets for surveillance, it proved impossible to actually derive any actionable intelligence out of this surveillance. The idea of this all-pervasive surveillance – collecting the hay stack – is therefore clearly to enable the US and its allies to exert control over global populations for their economic and military benefit.

Challenges for Global South: Global south countries therefore have a serious challenge on their hands. How can one ensure the benefits of communications technology, which are numerous, while drastically changing the present state of affairs, where every bit of data created is being seized, stored and processed by the NSA?

To begin with, there is an urgent need to change the architecture of the underlying telecommunications network such that the global south is connected directly and not through the US and other developed countries. Focus must lie also on developing local infrastructure – in terms of both hardware and software (including applications / services). In this respect, the promotion of free and open source software and hardware is essential. Not only does it provide various benefits of an economic nature, but unlike proprietary technology, is far less prone to hacking or bugging.

Given resource constraints in developing countries, it is often tempting to invite foreign companies into the domestic market without considering the impact this could have on domestic competition and users or indeed the strategic long-term impact of such moves.

The recent instance of the experiment is a case in point and demonstrates why public interest regulation of the Internet – in this case to establish rules protecting the principle of network neutrality – are essential.

While the initiative is being marketed by Facebook as a program to connect those who are still offline to the Internet for free. What in effect it does, is to provide users access to only a few sites including Facebook while denying access to other sites and services on the Internet. This is merely an attempt to tap into massive potential markets while ensuring Facebook not only maintains its preeminent position amongst social networks, but also so it can then act as the gatekeeper to what sites and content users can access.

This means for those services not selected by Facebook (and therefore available only at a cost) will in all likelihood disappear. This will only help promote the further centralisation of services and content. Of course, one mustn’t forget that Facebook has not announced any plans to open data centres where this service will be provided – meaning user data will probably be saved outside the jurisdiction of local governments and under NSA jurisdiction.

Given the imperatives of ensuring diversity of online content and services and ensuring that user data is secure, countries must act to regulate the Internet space appropriately at both the domestic and international levels.

At the international level, there must be greater cooperation amongst developing and underdeveloped countries to formulate alternative models and methods of Internet governance, to deal with the impact that technology is having on our societies. Be it in the form of greater privacy protections for global citizens or even relatively technical issues such as whether the logic behind search algorithms should be made public or who should own for instance the ‘.amazon’ domain – Amazon the US based company, or  countries such as Brazil, Peru etc., who are in the Amazon basin? There is an urgent need to work towards framing new global mechanisms that can ensure the citizens of the global south have a greater voice in determining the future of the Internet.

Last modified on Thursday, 09 July 2015 18:10
Rishab Bailey & Prabir Purkayastha

Prabir Purkayastha, an engineer by profession, is Chairperson of the Society for Knowledge Commons, India, an NGO working on issues of patents, copyright and digital commons. He is also founder member, Delhi Science Forum and the Vice President, Free Software Movement of India.

Rishab Bailey is a lawyer and associated with the Society for Knowledge Commons, India

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