Modern-day snooping

2013-06-24 00:00

THE intelligence world holds a certain fascination. My mother worked on the Enigma cipher-breaking machines at Bletchley Park in World War 2. Then, by sheer coincidence, my primary school in fifties’ Britain was a stone’s throw from a motley collection of prefabs we called the Foreign Office, later revealed as GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), today in modern, high-security premises on the other side of Cheltenham.

Beyond our house, and on the highest point of the Cotswolds, were two prominent pylons, in those days monitoring Soviet military wireless traffic.

Whether all this saved us from a nuclear war there is no way of telling. The work of intelligence and counter-intelligence agencies is secret, and we take their word for success. But there is no doubt that they have been riding their luck since 9/11, in the age of international terrorism.

During the Cold War, we lived under the threat of holocaust, but in the context of relatively well-managed international relations. Ultimately, sanity prevailed in Moscow, Washington, London, Paris and Beijing under the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. Nowadays, anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time can be blown to kingdom come by some deranged fanatic with a supposed cause. Casualties are surprisingly small. The greatest unsung victim is, in fact, civil liberties, bottom of the list for terrorists and security services alike. In the past fortnight, there has been much publicity about Edward Snowden, who spilled the beans about the U.S.’s National Security Agency’s Prism programme, which mines the Internet. Why this should be a surprise is a surprise: it’s the equivalent of tapping phones and steaming open envelopes that went on in the past, but much easier and virtually undetectable. And linking computers for surveillance purposes has been possible for decades, and so successful that recently, GCHQ put forward a plan for a master database of trawled material.

Prism revelations came hard on the heels of legislation before the British Parliament titled the Communications Data Bill (nicknamed the snooper’s charter), which would have compelled Internet service providers and cellphone companies to preserve details of every user’s activity, all in the interests of national security, naturally. The bill has been withdrawn at the insistence of the government’s coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. But meanwhile, commercial interests are quietly compiling profiles, working out how to target advertising to persuade us to spend more money on things we don’t need (in the interests of economic growth, of course). Far from an age of democracy and human rights, this is one of surveillance and control, although most of the time we are unaware of it.

This is brought home in a recent William Boyd novel, Ordinary Thunderstorms, in which the main character, Adam Kindred, a climatologist, stumbles across a murder in London. Pursued by the police and a thug in the pay of a pharmaceutical company, he disappears, camping out in a patch of undergrowth near Chelsea Bridge. But in order to remain undetected, he has to disengage completely from modern life: no cellphone calls, no ATM withdrawals or credit-card transactions, walk everywhere and seek no help from officialdom.

Kindred becomes an “urban ghost”, earning a living as a supposedly blind beggar. Eventually, he unravels the murder by taking on the identity of a dead acquaintance who had himself been using a false name. The moral of the story is that in our law-abiding, day-to-day lives, we all leave a luminous electronic trail. People addicted to social media simply add neon lights to theirs.

For those doing the snooping, the key lies in deep packet inspection. This is a fancy-sounding term for information retrieval by keyword to answer complex questions about behaviour based on communication patterns. What is found is rerouted, effectively stolen. Its legitimate use lies in firewall protection, policing of copyright infringement and, arguably, advertising research. But it is also handy for surveillance and censorship: the Chinese government employs it to block access to certain websites. Of course, the authorities in democracies maintain they limit their activity to legitimate targets, but filters can be defined so broadly that fishing expeditions result. It is not hard to imagine the vulnerability of whistle-blowers and confidential sources used by journalists. In South Africa, where James Sanders, historian of our intelligence services, reckons there are nine separate agencies, one wonders how far such software is in use. Surveillance is endemic: all nations spy, not just on their enemies, but on allies as well, which makes the current furore about the British bugging a G20 summit in 2009 something of a non-story. Spying is about smoke, mirrors … and hypocrisy.

However, there is hope and the answer seems obvious. If you have something confidential to communicate, use a pen to write it down, put it in an addressed, stamped envelope and post it. No one would ever bother to look for it in this obsessively wired global village where nothing that is non-digitised is taken seriously.

• letters@witness.co.za

Far from an age of democracy and human rights, this is one of surveillance and control

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