Thursday, September 13, 2007

YOUR government is a hacker

Is anyone really surprised that China would be trying to sneak into other countries’ communications networks? Last week the US, France, Germany and the UK all expressed outrage that China might be doing some snooping, but I’d be more surprised if they weren’t – after all, this kind of cloak and dagger activity is standard practice for most of the world’s governments, or at least their “special” services.

There was talk last week that President Bush was going to raise the matter with his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao. Somehow I don’t think that would be a wise move given the US history of spying on other countries, friend or foe, but the whole thing at least brings to light the hypocrisy of the West when it comes to anything to do with China (if they do it, it’s a major incident, if we do it it’s okay -- we’re democratic and we know best).

But assuming George W did bring up the matter of China snooping and working out how to infiltrate networks belonging to the US government, his opposite number would just have to mention one word: Echelon. For those that haven’t heard of it, Echelon is the name of a network whose existence was denied for years by the US and its allies, most notably the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Its purpose essentially was to spy on foreign governments and businesses by intercepting their communication signals.

These days nobody really questions its existence and in 2001 it was even brought up in a report to the European Parliament, which expressed surprise that many of its senior figures and European Commissioners were not even aware that Echelon existed. Now that they do, however, they’re quite peeved that the US and its collaborators would actually stoop to spying on Europe. They certainly did, however, and you can read the entire 194-page report at

The US is also not averse to tapping into the occasional submarine cable system to gather intelligence, either. There’s a great book called Blind Man’s Bluff that details the history of American submarine espionage, and one of the chapters deals with how the navy sent a sub under the Sea of Okhotsk, deep in Soviet territory, to tap into its Cold War foe’s telephone cables for intelligence. And thanks to the famed Bell Labs, it was one of the most successful spying missions, lasting years, that has ever been undertaken.

Of course, that was the Cold War. It couldn’t happen now, right? According to some people, that’s exactly what India is doing now that it is a major owner of undersea cables. In a book published this year by Major General VK Singh, former head of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the country’s main intelligence branch, he makes the claim that the agency procured interception-technology from France and that it has been installed at the VSNL gateway in Mumbai.

Singh’s book is titled “India's External Intelligence: Secrets of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW),” and he claims that Indian agencies have been tapping telephone traffic between Germany and Japan and other routes in a bid to emulate the CIA, which in turn has been trying
to intrude on the Indian efforts.

Personally, I’m more worried about governments and commercial organisations spying on me rather than spying among themselves. Like the case in Singapore, where Internet users were outraged recently that SingNet might have handed over details of subscribers that had been downloading Japanese anime. A similar request by anime distributor Odex was denied by rival ISP PacNet, so no guessing who the people’s hero is when it comes to Singaporean ISPs.

And moving back to the US, American telcos are also not averse to spying on their customers either, according to numerous reports including one in the Washington Post recently that noted how the Director of Intelligence had admitted that the private sector (ie, telcos) had helped the
government in areas such as wiretapping on its citizens, despite not having a warrant.

Needless to say, they’re being sued and we’ll probably be hearing more on this in the coming months as a result. But in the meantime, the U.S. president might want to avoid the whole topic of government spying – with the Chinese or anyone else.
-- Geoff Long

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