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Mar 23 2014

More evidence of NSA’s political and industrial espionage

Der Spiegel has released another big story yesterday based on the Edward Snowden documents, this time targeting China’s top political leaders and companies that pose a threat to American technology companies. It seems likely that this news release was timed to coincide with Michelle Obama’s current visit to China so that the news would have maximum impact.

The American government conducted a major intelligence offensive against China, with targets including the Chinese government and networking company Huawei, according to documents from former NSA worker Edward Snowden that have been viewed by SPIEGEL. Among the American intelligence service’s targets were former Chinese President Hu Jintao, the Chinese Trade Ministry, banks, as well as telecommunications companies.

But the NSA made a special effort to target Huawei. With 150,000 employees and €28 billion ($38.6 billion) in annual revenues, the company is the world’s second largest network equipment supplier. At the beginning of 2009, the NSA began an extensive operation, referred to internally as “Shotgiant,” against the company, which is considered a major competitor to US-based Cisco. The company produces smartphones and tablets, but also mobile phone infrastructure, WLAN routers and fiber optic cable — the kind of technology that is decisive in the NSA’s battle for data supremacy.

The operation was conducted with the involvement of the White House intelligence coordinator and the FBI. One document states that the threat posed by Huawei is “unique”.

Of course, when questioned about this, US spokespersons trotted out the tired and threadbare national security line.

Responding to the allegations, NSA spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said she should could not comment on specific collection activities or on the intelligence operations of specific foreign countries, “but I can tell you that our intelligence activities are focused on the national security needs of our country.” She also said, “We do not give intelligence we collect to US companies to enhance their international competitiveness or increase their bottom line.”

That is disingenuous in the extreme. We are long past the stage where the claims that all this spying is to fight terrorism have any credibility whatsoever.

Glenn Greenwald comments on the remarkable fact of many US journalists actually condemning the release of this story because it was not about spying on Americans. As Greenwald asks:

Who created the uber-nationalistic standard that the only valid disclosures are ones involving the rights of Americans? Are we are all supposed to regard non-Americans as irrelevant? Is the NSA’s bulk, suspicionless surveillance of the private communications of hundreds of millions of human beings inherently proper simply because its victims aren’t American citizens? Even more extreme: are American journalists (and whistleblowers like Snowden) supposed to keep the public ignorant of anything and everything the US Government does to people provided those people aren’t blessed with American citizenship? Do you condemn whoever leaked the existence of top secret CIA black sites to Dana Priest on the ground that it didn’t involve violations of the rights of Americans? It makes sense that US government officials view the world this way: their function is to advance the self-perceived interests of the US government, but that’s not the role of actual journalists or whistleblowers.

Truly, this strategy of channeling these stories through the big establishment media outlets has put the government and jingoistic journalists in a bind because they are forced to refrain from targeting the New York Times that also reported on this story and instead focus their ire on Snowden. But Greenwald points out that Snowden himself has not released any documents since leaving Hong Kong on June 9, 2013 and has nothing to do with any of the subsequent stories which are being reported on by journalists on their own schedule. It should also be noted that Snowden explicitly excluded the NYT from his list of journalists because of their past subservience to the US government.

10 comments

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  1. 1
    Kimpatsu

    Are we are all supposed to regard non-Americans as irrelevant?
    err… yes. Because Americans are special. How silly to think otherwise.

  2. 2
    Marcus Ranum

    I remember back to 2010 when the US Government was hopping up and down trying to get Huawei gear banned from government agencies because the Evil Chinese had probably backdoored the hardware. Now, in 2014 we have a different perspective….

  3. 3
    Beth

    I’m not up on foreign affairs and legitimate spy targets, but I’m not sure why we are supposed to be surprised the U.S. was spying on Chinese citizens. We certainly don’t consider them friendly. Aren’t we scared of them? Don’t they have the ability to f*** with us in serious ways – especially financially?

    This is probably a naive question, but what people in what countries would you consider legitimate targets for surveillance?

  4. 4
    Mano Singham

    @Beth,

    The point is that the US has defended these programs as being necessary to combat terrorism and only used for that purpose, and have strongly criticized other countries that conduct industrial espionage and cyber-sabotage.

    As for the Chinese people, why would I be scared of them? Aren’t they for the most part just like us? Or should they be scared of us too? By ‘us’, I mean ordinary people not the NSA.

    Legitimate targets for me would be those against whom there is at least a prima facie case that they are engaged in terrorism.

  5. 5
    doublereed

    Yea, because China has state-run corporations, it’s been well known that they use their state apparatus of espionage for corporate uses. Which means they get advantages in negotiating contracts and things like that.

    It was generally the consensus opinion that America did not do this, because we have a separation of corporation and government (at least moreso than China does). The United States has made it a significant point of taking the high road. But recent revelations show that to be simply naive and incorrect. This has nothing to do with national security. It’s completely out of that purview. It’s just to make it easier to make corporations money.

  6. 6
    Beth

    Thanks. Why be scared of the Chinese? I don’t know. I occasionally work with data that has export limitations. I just know that the Chinese are on the list of nationalities that I have to be careful about, even with the lowest level of limitations. That tells me that China is on the short list of nations we are the most concerned about with respect to national security.

    Thank’s for your opinion about what are legitimate targets. I don’t know quite what to make of this. What constitutes a legitimate target and what isn’t is a good question that ought to be publicly debated. I suspect that the line between industrial espionage and national security can be difficult to delineate.

  7. 7
    davidjanes

    Although “everyone does it” may be a bad defense, in this case that is pretty much true. When I was working a contract for a large multinational back in the early 90s we were warned by the State Department that anything we sent in corporate email to Europe (not Internet ,a bit too early for that) was being read by French and German intelligence and routinely passed to our competition. I can only imagine that the reason State knew was that we were in turn reading the French and German emails where they discussed it.

    In this case *not* doing it may well be the case of going into a gun fight with only a water pistol. There are legitimate concerns that the Chinese government has pressured their telecom firms to add back doors to their products, so finding out if that is so is in fact part of the mission of the NSA from well before 9/11. Those products are used in American networks, after all.

  8. 8
    doublereed

    Yea, in general, I think people underestimate how easy it would be for Huawei to be a Supply Chain Threat. China has done all sorts of funky things with hardware that we already know about.

    If anything, Snowden’s documents has just shown us that the NSA is also a Supply Chain Threat.

  9. 9
    astrosmashley

    Beth : “I suspect that the line between industrial espionage and national security can be difficult to delineate.”

    exactly. This is the excuse that we will see emerging in the next months for the NSAs unfettered data collecting. It is truly a textbook definition of the ‘slippery slope’… If this concern is a legitimate excuse for spying at what level does it become unacceptable?

  10. 10
    Olovo

    Yea, in general, I think people underestimate how easy it would be for Huawei to be a Supply Chain Threat. China has done all sorts of funky things with hardware that we already know about.
    http://solicitorsfromhell.net/

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