Spying, Prying & Lying: The Rise of Global Digital Surveillance
“Books have been written about [US] President Eisenhower’s famous farewell warning in 1961 about the ‘military-industrial complex,’ and what he described as its ‘unwarranted influence.’ But an even greater leviathan today, one that the public knows little about, is the ‘intelligence-industrial complex.'”
– Michael Hirsh, National Journal1
In our interconnected global digital society, there appears to be no escape from the issue of digital surveillance. Regardless of nationality, political affiliation, profession or income bracket, it touches nearly everyone in some fashion.
Over the last three decades, a parallel state has been constructed right under our noses. It’s nothing less than a digital dynasty, whose sole concern thus far has been mass surveillance and covert operations – across the whole world. With the full support of an unflinching judicial structure that approves the spying, it also goes to bat for the transnational corporations who wish to target certain individuals that oppose them.
For some Democrat voters in the United States, the Obama government’s stance on the National Security Agency’s (NSA) global spying network has come as a shock. Their government not only approves such a program, but also battles against reform legislation designed to stop it.
Americans were quick to realise this is no mere partisan issue – it’s been fostered by successive governments and with virtually no public oversight. Under the shadow of 9/11, USA Patriot Acts I and II were hurried through by President George W. Bush. On this point, George W. is often credited as being the source of the problem, along with the self referential Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) state wiretapping edicts – where anything goes so long as it’s deemed to be within the bounds of national security.
But the foundation of this modern international digital surveillance state goes back much further though – to the Echelon program – in operation since the 1980s (see ‘ECHELON: The System that Foreshadowed PRISM’ on page 12 of this issue of New Dawn). The US government built this state of the art total information collection centre off shore at Menwith Hill in the north of England, and then routed its data back to NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland and Arlington Hall, Virginia. By offshoring various aspects of their communications spy network, the US avoided any sticky legal issues surrounding the existence of such an operation within the borders of the US.
Besides their joint project with General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in the United Kingdom, other US offshore bases for this global operation include joint operating facilities with Defense Signals Directorate (DSD) in Australia, Communications Security Establishment (CSE) in Canada, Government Security Communications Bureau (GSCB) in New Zealand, and National SIGINT Organisation (NSO) in The Netherlands.
Americans cite the Fourth Amendment of their Bill of Rights as their legal protection to privacy against government intrusions, which states clearly, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
What has become clear, however, is that neither the Fourth Amendment, the Supreme Court, nor citizen petitioning, has the power to stop this new international state and corporate digital spy network.
The Snowden Affair
The NSA whistleblowing exploits of former CIA analyst and NSA consultant Edward Snowden has ripped open the privacy debate on both domestic and international levels (see ‘What Snowden Revealed’ in this issue of New Dawn).
Despite the size and scope of Snowden’s NSA whistleblowing, there’s little sign of Washington DC changing its imperial practices, and even less indication that any of its European allies will display the political backbone necessary to hold it to account.
European leaders appear to have stumbled and fallen into their own gray abyss of legalese and culpability. The lack of leadership on such a major issue may damage public confidence in the political classes who appear to be unable to properly address what can only be described as a multi-billion dollar state within a state, existing completely outside democratic and judicial processes.
During the early days of the Third Reich in Germany, much European policy towards Nazi aggression was indifferent because so many regarded Germany as a dominant power and were therefore keen to curry favour. Many leaders, including those in Britain and France, adopted a policy of appeasement. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was even hailed as the “saviour of Europe” after he struck the Munich agreement with Hitler’s government.
Europe’s general lack of foresight and ethical vacuum saw them defer to Germany on the basis of money and power. Now we see history repeating itself again, although somewhat in reverse, with Germany running cover for Washington’s NSA digital empire.
Germany’s change of direction on this issue reveals a lot about the scale of the problem. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s initial public response seemed to be that of outrage.
“We are no longer in the Cold War,” said Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert. Seibert added, “If it is confirmed that diplomatic representations of the European Union and individual European countries have been spied upon, we will clearly say that bugging friends is unacceptable.”2
Merkel’s public façade didn’t hold up for long after Snowden revealed in Der Spiegel magazine only days later that the US and Germany were in fact partners in the global spy network. “They are in bed with the Germans, just like with most other Western states,” the German magazine quoted Snowden as saying, adding the NSA has a Foreign Affairs Directorate which is responsible for cooperation with other countries.3
The same Der Spiegel report also detailed exactly how German Federal Intelligence Service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), and NSA work together.
The embarrassment of this particular Snowden bombshell seemed to force Germany down a notch, with Merkel opting for a new policy of appeasement instead, proving that the initial rift between the US and Germany was mere political theatre.
Merkel told Die Zeit that there was “a need to discuss the balance between privacy and security, but protection against terrorism was not possible without the option of electronic surveillance.” She added, “(I want) the necessary discussions with the United States to be conducted in the spirit which, despite the many justified questions, never forgets that America has been our most loyal ally over the decades and still is.”4
Merkel’s last statement indicates she is just as out of touch with public opinion as the culture of denial that still dominates Washington DC.
“For me, there is no comparison at all between the state security (STASI) of the GDR and the work of intelligence services in democratic states,” said Merkel.5
It seems incredible but not so shocking when you consider the reality: all the major Western powers are in total coordination when it comes to international data mining and spying on their domestic populations. They have laid down the embryonic framework necessary for an intelligence gathering network that will be the keystone for a global government in the near future.
When former lieutenant colonel in East Germany’s secret STASI police, Wolfgang Schmidt, heard about Snowden’s NSA leaks, he remarked that in his day the wiretapping department was limited to tapping only 40 phones every day. If a decision was made to tap a new phone, one of the others had to be disconnected. “For us, this would have been a dream come true… so much information on so many people!,” said Schmidt.6
With the data packets being collected and stored reaching into the trillions, many are claiming it is physically impossible for the US, UK, Germany and others to sift through and make sense of all of it – but this is missing the point. Aside from the fact that much of the data processing and filing is computer automated already, the real function of the giant digital harvester is not to spy on everyone and watch everyone in real time. Rather, the function of this system is to collect data and archive it. Once a citizen, activist, or dissenter (essentially, any enemy of the state or major corporation) has been profiled and targeted, then the system can pull up that person’s complete digital thread and then analysts can begin digging through that person’s life online and conceivably paint any picture imaginable based on travel movements, relationships, search history, phone activity and social network commenting.
The Accountability Myth
It’s long been assumed throughout the 20th century – regarded as ‘the century of progress’ – that an essential quality of any modern civilised society is the presence of accountability between government and its citizens. This concept is struggling for survival in the early 21st century.
At the height of the NSA exposure, a tiny country in Europe has somehow managed to deliver a rare example of what should happen in an advanced civilised democracy. Luxembourg’s long-serving Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker announced his resignation on 11 June over a spying scandal involving illegal phone-taps, alongside a number other highly corrupt activities.
In normal times, what happened in Luxembourg should also happen in other countries like the US, or Great Britain – but these are far from normal times. What passes for normal in this bizarre epoch is anyone’s guess, and you could say the same for what passes for ‘legal’ these days, especially in the United States.
The net result is that expectation of accountability has dissolved into a larger pool of moral relativism – where any extremist government program can be justified on a basis of Hegelian narrative or such.
The NSA crisis is a perfect example of the death of accountability. Snowden’s revelations should have been a watershed moment for 21st century society in 2013, but instead it’s languished in a political environment devoid of any real democratic or parliamentary controls which should be regulating the practice of the state’s warrantless digital surveillance and mass data theft.
What’s worse, there’s even less chance of justice in the courts, where adjudicators have been rendered impotent to enforce the law – they are buried under an avalanche of national security directives, emergency war-time edicts and administrative executive orders.
The Star Chamber Courts
The rise of new administrative and statutory courts in the West has been a great enabler for the modern security state. These courts are designed to work outside of their countries constitutional controls and common law rights. What has emerged out of this new trend is a type of corporate state where the corporations themselves can exert their own ‘rights’ to life, liberty and the pursuit of profits, and where the corporation’s interest ultimately usurps that of the individual citizen.
Well before the Snowden affair broke in June 2013, Germany had already cleared the legal path for at least one of the transnational corporations within the NSA global collective.
Through the use of administrative courts and the EU, the Administrative Court of Schleswig, Germany upheld two decisions on 14 February 2013 which ruled that German data protection laws do not apply to data processing by Facebook (file numbers 8 B 60/12 and 8 B 61/1). These controversial judicial procedures, initiated by Facebook Inc. (USA) and by Facebook Ltd. (Ireland, EU), reversed a previous order by the Independent State Center for Data Protection of Schleswig-Holstein (ULD) which had ruled to allow users to sign in on Facebook using a pseudonym and to unblock those user-accounts that had been blocked due to the users not using their real name and personal data. At the time this was seen as a victory for Facebook the corporation – when in fact, this was really a victory for the NSA – who harvests its data from Facebook.
NSA in Partnership with GCHQ
Based on Snowden leaks, we’ve learned more about the true nature of America’s NSA and Britain’s GCHQ partnership in this international spy network, sharing data and communications.
Through the UK Government’s Communications Headquarters known as TEMPORA, the British agency is able to tap over 200 fibre optic cables landing in the UK, saving everything – up to 27 petabytes a day – which are then parsed out to 300 GCHQ analysts and 250 NSA colleagues who then sift through it.
A decade of Patriot Acts, FISA laws and Wikileaks cables has left Americans and Europeans alike in a precarious state akin to Stockholm Syndrome, where their love of digital communications almost trumps their concerns for privacy. This same ambiguity has been echoed by Obama and Merkel, who both claim that protection against terrorism is not possible without the option of electronic surveillance.
The narrative which was originally framed around Washington’s invasion of its citizens’ privacy has since gone international, as governments partner with each other – and with corporations – to establish the largest global digital dragnet imaginable.
According to Snowden’s revelations in Der Spiegel, the NSA snoops through approximately 20-60 million German phone connections, and 10 million internet data sets a day. All in all, the NSA combs through around half a billion German phone calls, emails and text messages on a monthly basis.
To add insult to injury, it’s been said US intelligence regards Germany as a “third class partner,” on par with the likes of China and Iraq, making them fair game for NSA targeting. It’s not just Berlin, as the NSA are also said to have bugged EU diplomatic offices and gained access to EU internal computer networks.
Digital Fascism Without Borders
The corporate aspect should not be underrated in terms of its central role in the international digital data trade.
Edward Snowden’s PRISM revelations of government controlled NSA wiretapping and data theft are nothing new, as former CIA analyst Russell Tice proved almost a decade ago in 2005 by showing the NSA were engaged in unlawful and unconstitutional wiretaps on American citizens.
The NSA cannot operate without the partnership of telecommunications companies – all of whom have offices and operational hubs in most foreign markets. Herein resides the key aspect in all of this – that in order for agencies like the NSA and GCHQ to get easy access to all of our digital communications and data, they still need the cooperation of corporations to do it.
In the US, it’s still not known to what extent major internet service providers and mobile carriers like Verizon and AT&T are in bed with the NSA within US borders. NSA-controlled “SG3” collection rooms embedded within various companies’ facilities have been revealed. Shocking enough, but not nearly as shocking if you consider the role of transnational corporations in enabling NSA access to your digital threads and mobile phone activity.
Internationally, citizens have already signed over most of their privacy simply by using the digital services of US multinationals like Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Skype, Yahoo and others. It seems that all of these corporations operate within a kind of ‘profit-first’ ethical vacuum where in many cases there is a client relationship with the NSA who is allowed the privilege of consuming their customers’ communications and data.
According to the Snowden leaks, the level of collusion between Microsoft Corp and the NSA is astonishing. Microsoft allows the NSA to skirt encryption protocols on Outlook, Skype video and cloud services, and data captured by the NSA is routinely passed on to both the FBI and the CIA.7
What happened to businesses looking out for their customers?
The horrible irony here is too obvious to ignore: the US government, through its National Security Agency, is handing taxpayer dollars to mega corporations in exchange for all of our personal communications and data. In other words, it’s big business.
Corporations Using the NSA to Target Activists
Harvesting data and communications from the digital corporate monopolies is one thing, but the collusion between big government and big business reached new lows when it was revealed that major international oil producer Chevron Corporation had pressured the US federal government to hand over nine years of NSA metadata – metadata including names, time stamps, user location data and their login information, but not the email contents. The metadata Chevron was after belonged to activists, lawyers, and journalists who criticised Chevron for its drilling in Ecuador – an operation that left an environmentally devastating trail of toxic sludge and leaky pipelines.
“Since 1993, when the litigation began, Chevron has lost multiple appeals and has been ordered to pay plaintiffs from native communities about $19 billion to cover the cost of environmental damage. Chevron alleges that it is the victim of a mass extortion conspiracy, which is why the company is asking Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, which owns Hotmail, to cough up the email data. When Lewis Kaplan, a federal judge in New York, granted the Microsoft subpoena last month, he ruled it didn’t violate the First Amendment because Americans weren’t among the people targeted.”8
The court ruled that the First Amendment rights of the activists did not apply when weighed against the interests of the transnational oil corporation Chevron. This was an unprecedented move by US courts, and is perhaps one of the most worrying examples of where the digital power grab is heading in future.
When omnipotent security organisations like the NSA can skirt around privacy laws by reaching over borders, and then act on the behest of powerful corporations who seek to hunt down their detractors across borders, then the potential for a complete breakdown of local law protected by national sovereignty exists.
Taking the Hegelian dialectic of problem, reaction, solution into account here, we can see how the US federal courts and Chevron initiated the problem, and triggered the reaction which is public outrage. All that is needed now is the solution, likely to be offered by the very bodies who initiated the outrage in the first instance. Their solution to the over-influence of global corporate bodies may be a global corporate government to regulate such affairs in future.
Such an unholy alliance between partnering governments and transnational corporations could be defined as fascism, but the global nature of this operation might require a new term to define what it means as a global phenomenon.
Watch the Bouncing Ball
It’s important the public realise the lesson in the media circus surrounding the Snowden affair: that despite all the damning discoveries and illegalities, neither the US nor anyone else in its sphere has any plans to roll back this intrusive network.
As the world’s media focused on the Snowden leaks and recoiled in horror over the implications, behind the scenes the NSA steamed ahead by embarking on its biggest expansion phase since Echelon. We are told there must be austerity for just about every public service and expenditure, but when it comes to spying and data mining on citizens, they’re writing nothing but blank cheques. The bill is already in the trillions of dollars and it’s far from over.
As a facility that is already much bigger than the Pentagon, the NSA headquarters is set to grow by an additional 50 percent when construction is complete in 2022 – and that’s just for its HQ in Fort Meade. Expansion is also taking place across all its major domestic sites including bases in Hawaii, Colorado, Georgia, Utah and Texas, as well as Australia and Britain.
These revelations of the size and scope – and total legal impunity of state and corporate spying networks – have already initiated a chilling effect on how people use the internet. Self policing behaviour on internet surfing, searches, email and social network engagement is already happening.
“In Louisiana, the wife of a former soldier is scaling back on Facebook posts and considering unfriending old acquaintances, worried an innocuous joke or long-lost associate might one day land her in a government probe. In California, a college student encrypts chats and emails, saying he’s not planning anything sinister but shouldn’t have to sweat snoopers. And in Canada, a lawyer is rethinking the data products he uses to ensure his clients’ privacy.”9
Perhaps this was one of the intended social engineering byproducts of the whole NSA media campaign. Either way, one thing is certain, and that’s no one likes being watched.
Beyond the obvious disturbing narrative in Edward Snowden’s dark revelations, it’s important to focus on what has enabled agencies like the NSA and GCHQ to act with impunity from behind their digital fortress. Big governments excelled in capitalising on a post-September 11 paranoia that hijacked the national consciousness in the US, the UK and Australia. The entire basis upon which their relentless war-time cry has been erected can be described in three words: “War on Terror.”
As public pressure mounts on the US government over the NSA scandal, so has the pressure for the government to justify such operations as part of the global war on terror. Early efforts in this area have already met with failure, including this past June, when NSA Director General Keith Alexander claimed that more than 50 terror plots had been prevented because of the agency’s highly classified data gathering.
“In the 12 years since the attacks on Sept. 11, we have lived in relative safety and security as a nation. That security is a direct result of the intelligence community’s quiet efforts to better connect the dots and learn from the mistakes that permitted those attacks to occur on 9/11.”10
Unfortunately for General Alexander, the facts don’t square with such lofty claims. At least one of the terror plots he cited has already been shown to have never occurred, along with two other cases shown not to have been solved by the NSA spy grid.
Most reasonable folk are in agreement that government agencies like the NSA have been allowed to drift far beyond the boundaries of domestic and international law and are out of control. They should be reined in as soon as possible in order to preserve any remaining moral standing for a country that has exhausted nearly all of its goodwill internationally – as well as domestically.
Judging by Washington’s stoic and unapologetic stance thus far, goodwill doesn’t seem to be a high priority. Until the problem is properly addressed, there will remain a gaping hole of moral leadership in the international community.
Throughout history, political leaders have always been notoriously slow to realise when the goodwill of the public is exhausted, which completely erodes public trust. That seems to be where things stand right now over the surveillance issue – and we’re on that very slippery slope indeed.
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1. ‘How America’s Top Tech Companies Created the Surveillance State’, by Michael Hirsh, www.nationaljournal.com, 25 July
2. ‘NSA spying row: bugging friends is unacceptable, warn Germans’ by Ian Traynor, The Guardian, 1 July
3. ‘Snowden: NSA is “in bed with the Germans”’, RT.com, 8 July
4. Reuters, 10 July
6, ‘Memories of Stasi color Germans’ view of U.S. surveillance programs’ by Matthew Schofield, McClatchyDC, 26 June, www.mcclatchydc.com
7. ‘How Microsoft handed the NSA access to encrypted messages’ by Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, Laura Poitras, Spencer Ackerman and Dominic Rushe, The Guardian, 12 July
8. ‘Court: Chevron Can Seize Americans’ Email Data’ by Dana Liebelson, Mother Jones, 22 July
9. ‘NSA spying revelations prompt some ordinary citizens to rethink computing habits’ by Associated Press, 22 July
10. ‘N.S.A. Chief Says Surveillance Has Stopped Dozens of Plots’ by Charlie Savage, NY Times, 18 June
About the Author
PATRICK HENNINGSEN is an independent investigative reporter, editor, and journalist. A native of Omaha, Nebraska and a graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in California, he is currently based in London, England and is the managing editor of 21st Century Wire – News for the Waking Generation (http://www.21stCentryWire.com) which covers exposés on intelligence, geopolitics, foreign policy, the war on terror, technology and Wall Street. Patrick is a regular commentator on Russia Today.
The above article appeared in New Dawn No. 140 (September-October 2013)
© New Dawn Magazine and the respective author.
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