The art and business of spying

The business of intelligence is as old as history and expected to thrive in the future as well, despite its conflicting images from time to time. As long as the state has its ambitions and fears, intelligence collection will continue. Wars may have an end but in the business of espionage there is neither an end nor any winners.

The game of intelligence has its rules that it easily flouts or bends. Truth with friends is elastic. Spying on allies and friends was common in the Second World War because interests are permanent and friends may become enemies. It is better to cover them when they are friends and provide good practice in happier times. Friends can lead to valuable intelligence, quite often unknowingly.

The NSA’s covert operation AURORAGOLD monitored the content of messages of more than 1,200 email accounts associated with major cellphone network operators. representaion Pic/Thinkstock
The NSA’s covert operation AURORAGOLD monitored the content of messages of more than 1,200 email accounts associated with major cellphone network operators. representaion Pic/Thinkstock

More than half a century ago, Americans learnt from cables sent by the Indian Ambassador KM Panikkar that on September 25, 1950, Zhou En-lai had told Panikkar that if the South Koreans or UN forces crossed the 38th parallel, the Chinese would intervene in force. The Americans either disregarded or disbelieved this and the rest is history.

Easy availability of 21st century technology and means of communication have been game changers and the September 11, 2001, attack first sent shock waves in America before panic set in followed by massive retaliation. This event altered perceptions, needs and priorities especially in the West led by the US. A great deal of this change was also facilitated by abilities to make changes and by the perceptions of the threat.

The intelligence apparatus grew almost overnight. Americans quietly acquiesced to a stringent Patriot Act that curbed individual rights, a new agency Homeland Security was up and away. Personnel handling intelligence reached 210,000 by 2012 in 17 intelligence agencies in the US. Kabul alone had 700 case officers and presumably a comparable number in Islamabad.

Both the DIA and FBI grew phenomenally. The FBI has its own fleet of 132 surveillance aircraft and helicopters owned by different front companies in the US. Private American corporations increasingly collect and analyse on behalf of the US government, both in the NSA and CIA. Even special operations have been outsourced in some cases. For instance, till a few years ago, 47 private American companies were assisting 17 US agencies in developing HUMINT.

It had begun to tap into data hubs of Google and Yahoo for email data. Today 5 billion emails are downloaded every day, apart from listening into phone calls and covering all Americans. Imagine the downstream activity that would involve more technology and expertise to convert this data into information, and then knowledge and finally intelligence.

America’s enormous, mostly unacknowledged, surveillance overdrive was designed to sweep in all possible intelligence that might lead to exposure of terror links and plans. The US began watching hundreds
of international companies and organisations, including in countries closely allied to the US, to discover security weaknesses in cellphone technology and exploit for surveillance. The covert operation, AURORAGOLD monitored the content of messages of more than 1,200 email accounts associated with major cellphone network operators.

One high-profile target has been the GSM Association, an influential UK-headquartered trade group, which represents the interests of more than 800 major cellphone, software, and Internet companies globally. Oddly enough, GSMA works closely with large US-based firms including Microsoft, Facebook, AT&T, Cisco, Verizon, Sprint, Intel, and Oracle, as well as large international firms including Sony, Nokia, Samsung, Ericsson, and Vodafone and is currently funded by the US government to develop privacy-enhancing technologies. The operation targets virtually every cellphone network in the world. Earlier this year, Amazon Web Services developed a multi-million dollar computing cloud for the CIA to enable all intelligence agencies share intelligence and data intending to plug gaps that existed before 9/11.

The information collected is shared within the US Intelligence Community and with the so-called “Five Eyes” surveillance alliance the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The NSA also covers Germany and France but sharing is restricted.

A strong military-intelligence-industry-private security complex exists in America. Rules about security, secrecy, freedoms and privacy in the world’s strongest democracy are considerably different from what we imagine. Granted that the US normally goes for the overkill and in comparison our systems are in kindergarten stuff, there is no denying that we need upgrades. Intelligence and intercepts post-event, as in the recent Uri case, are of academic interest.

In India, we should also ponder about how much intrusion into privacy is necessary intrusion. How much surveillance does a country need?

The writer is a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)

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