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Jul 07 2013

How the NSA spies on other countries

The front page of the Sunday edition of a major Brazilian newspaper O Globo today had the headline “US spied on millions of emails and calls of Brazilians” and was a story about how the NSA was spying on the communications of millions of Brazilians. (Rough English translation here.) This story was also provided by Edward Snowden, just as the earlier Der Spiegel story about spying on Germans.

The Guardian shared this scoop with other newspapers because, as Glenn Greenwald explains, they have so much material to in the pipeline for their own paper that they did not want to delay the news. This willingness to share scoops is another feature that distinguishes the Guardian from other news outlets.

As the headline suggests, the crux of the main article details how the NSA has, for years, systematically tapped into the Brazilian telecommunication network and indiscriminately intercepted, collected and stored the email and telephone records of millions of Brazilians. The story follows an article in Der Spiegel last week, written by Laura Poitras and reporters from that paper, detailing the NSA’s mass and indiscriminate collection of the electronic communications of millions of Germans. There are many more populations of non-adversarial countries which have been subjected to the same type of mass surveillance net by the NSA: indeed, the list of those which haven’t been are shorter than those which have. The claim that any other nation is engaging in anything remotely approaching indiscriminate worldwide surveillance of this sort is baseless.

As those two articles detail, all of this bulk, indiscriminate surveillance aimed at populations of friendly foreign nations is part of the NSA’s “FAIRVIEW” program. Under that program, the NSA partners with a large US telecommunications company, the identity of which is currently unknown, and that US company then partners with telecoms in the foreign countries. Those partnerships allow the US company access to those countries’ telecommunications systems, and that access is then exploited to direct traffic to the NSA’s repositories. Both articles are based on top secret documents provided by Edward Snowden; O Globo published several of them.

Some Americans may shrug at their own government spying on them but the people in these other countries are rightly upset at a foreign power scooping up their records, just as Americans would be upset if they learned that (say) the Chinese government was intercepting their communications, and this latest revelation is big news there. It will be seen as yet another confirmation of the imperialist nature of the US government.

Meanwhile some foreign business might leave the US cloud services if they think that their business secrets are being given to their competitors or the US government.

If any US reporters bother to ask president Obama why the US is spying on Brazilians, will we hear that all the hijackers who flew the planes into the Twin Towers on 9/11 were from Brazil and that that country has long been a haven for al Qaeda so we need to spy on them to ‘keep us safe’? After all, the Bush administration managed to make the public accept that story about Iraq and why allow a good lie to be used just once? Besides, Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia, no?

6 comments

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  1. 1
    Chiroptera

    … just as Americans would be upset if they learned that (say) the Chinese government was intercepting their communications….

    Yeah, that’s always been something I’d ask the apologists for the US security apparatus: replace “US whistle-blower” with “French whistle-blower” or “Chinese whistle-blower” or “Iranian whistle-blower.” Are you really claiming that you’d feel the same level of outrage?

    Although I’m supposeing I’d have to suffer under a tedious explanation about “how that’s different”!

  2. 2
    Corvus illustris

    Cold-war precedents suggest that your hypothetical whistle-blowers would not merely be given asylum, but set up in a pleasant (though supervised) environment, furnished with new identites, and pensioned.

  3. 3
    Chiroptera

    Mano Singham: Meanwhile some foreign business might leave the US cloud services if they think that their business secrets are being given to their competitors or the US government.

    From the linked article: If I were an American cloud provider, I would be quite frustrated with my government right now.

    Unfortunately, if American cloud providers are anything like many American citizens, they’ll be more likely frustrated with Snowden for alerting the world to the problem rather than the US government for creating the problem in the first place.

  4. 4
    Marcus Ranum

    Meanwhile some foreign business might leave the US cloud services if they think that their business secrets are being given to their competitors or the US government.

    How much economic damage will the US suffer thanks to these bad decisions from Washington? It’s going to make it hard for American software companies, infrastructure companies, telecom services, data services, etc – top to bottom. Would you trust an SSL certificate signed by a US company, now? (hint: I wouldn’t, years ago…) (and now we know why SSL omitted perfect forward secrecy from the protocol…) The problem isn’t just that a country can go “the internet is trapdoored – time to build my own” – it’s all the huge superstructure that runs atop the internet: DNS, amazon, Oracle, Microsoft, Google, Cisco, Intel – you need a whole new stack, and you need to build it so it’s not booby trapped from below. Short form: the internet is a wholly owned colony of the US.

  5. 5
    Gregory in Seattle

    Meanwhile some foreign business might leave the US cloud services if they think that their business secrets are being given to their competitors or the US government.

    The push towards cloud services is the result of the US government shoving American businesses into developing such services and forcing their customers into using them. The new versions of Microsoft Office and Adobe products are all “cloud based,” meaning that all of your documents are stored on a third-party server somewhere: disabling this requires jumping through a lot of hoops. Even then, opening ANY document when your computer is online will save a backup “for your convenience” to the cloud whether you want it to or not. And once that copy is made to a third-party server, it is no longer privileged communications and, according to current US legal doctrine, can be accessed by any government agent without the need of a warrant.

    We are creating a surveillance society far beyond anything Orwell could have imagined in 1948.

  6. 6
    David Marjanović

    The new versions of Microsoft Office and Adobe products are all “cloud based,” meaning that all of your documents are stored on a third-party server somewhere: disabling this requires jumping through a lot of hoops.

    No. I recently (though before the scandal came out) bought and downloaded Microsoft Office 2013. Yes, it wants to push a cloud on you, but you only need to say “no” a few times, not jump through hoops.

    I did have to create a Microsoft account, though. Which is creepy.

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