Nation's strategic, commercial interests may have been compromised

The public assertions made by Indian and American officials that no content was taken from India’s internet and telephone networks by U.S.’s National Security Agency (NSA) and that the American surveillance programs just looked at “patterns of communication” as a counter-terrorism measure are far from the truth, if not outright misleading.

According to a top secret document disclosed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and obtained by The Hindu, the PRISM programme was deployed by the American agency to gather key information from India by tapping directly into the servers of tech giants which provide services such as email, video sharing, voice-over-IPs, online chats, file transfer and social networking services.

And, according to the PRISM document seen by The Hindu, much of the communication targeted by the NSA is unrelated to terrorism, contrary to claims of Indian and American officials.

Instead, much of the surveillance was focused on India’s domestic politics and the country’s strategic and commercial interests.

This is the first time it’s being revealed that PRISM, which facilitates extensive, in-depth surveillance on live communications as well as stored information, was used by the world’s largest surveillance organization to intercept and pick content on at least three issues related to India’s geopolitical and economic interests. They are: Nuclear, Space and Politics.

The top-secret NSA document, which carries the seal of “Special Source Operations”, is called “A Week in the Life of PRISM reporting” and it shows “Sampling of Reporting topics from 2-8 Feb 2013”. Marked with a green slug that reads “589 End product Reports’’, the document carries the brand logos of companies like Gmail, Facebook, MSN, Hotmail, Yahoo!, Google, Apple, Skype, YouTube, paltalk.com and AOL on the top of the page.

“End products” are official reports that are distillations of the best raw intelligence.

In a section titled “India”, the document clearly mentions numerous subjects about which content was picked from various service providers on the worldwide web in just one week early this year.

This document is strong evidence of the fact that NSA surveillance in India was not restricted to tracking of phone calls, text messages and email logs by Boundless Informant, an NSA tool that was deployed quite aggressively against India. “As politics, space and nuclear are mentioned as “end products” in this document, it means that emails, texts and phones of important people related to these fields were constantly monitored and intelligence was taken from them, and then the NSA prepared official reports on the basis of raw intelligence. It means, they are listening in real time to what our political leaders, bureaucrats and scientists are communicating with each other,” an official with an India intelligence agency told The Hindu, speaking strictly on condition of anonymity.

But, top ministers and officials have continued to live in denial.

After it was reported by The Guardian on June 7 that the PRISM program allowed the NSA “to obtain targeted communications without having to request them from the service providers and without having to obtain individual court orders”, both U.S. and Indian officials claimed that no content was being taken from the country’s networks and that the programs were intended to “counter terrorism”.

Kerry’s dissembling

During his visit to New Delhi on June 24 to take part in the India-U.S. Strategic Dialogue, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry denied that the American agency programmes were accessing online content. “It does not look at individual emails. It does not listen to people’s telephone conversation. It is a random survey by computers of anybody’s telephone, of just the numbers and not even the names…It takes those random numbers and looks whether those random numbers are connected to other numbers, that they know, by virtue of other intelligence, linked to terrorists in places where those terrorists operate,” Mr. Kerry had said, stressing that only when an “adequate linkage” is formed, the authorities go to a special court to get permission to obtain further data.

Even Indian officials have been repeating these lines since the NSA activities in India were disclosed. Replying to a question in Rajya Sabha on August 26, Communications and Information Technology Minister Kapil Sibal said the U.S. agencies only “trace origin and destination of the data, but never try to get access to the content, which requires a court approval”. “It would be a matter of concern for government if intrusive data capture has been deployed against Indian citizens or government infrastructure. Government has clearly conveyed these concerns to the U.S. government,” the minister had said, adding that the violation of any Indian law relating to privacy of information of ordinary Indian citizens by surveillance programs was “unacceptable”.

This “unacceptable” line might have been crossed by the NSA millions of times through the PRISM program as, according to the documents disclosed by Mr. Snowden, it is able to reach directly into the servers of the tech companies that are part of the programme and obtain data as well as perform real-time collection on targeted users. “The National Security Agency has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other U.S. internet giants,” The Guardian had said in its June 7 report, quoting from a 41-slide PowerPoint presentation which was apparently used to train intelligence operatives on the capabilities of the program.

Foreigners are fair game

Tech firms have denied that they allow unfettered access to the NSA. In strongly worded denials of participation in any government surveillance program, they have claimed they allow access to any data to the agency only when required by law.

Here lies the catch. Contrary to denials by tech firms and claims by India’s communication minister that the U.S. agency “requires a court approval” to look into any online content, the NSA used the changes in U.S. surveillance law that allows for the targeting of any customers of participating firms “who live outside the US, or those Americans whose communications include people outside the US”. This law, known as FISA Amendment Act or FAA, was introduced by President George W Bush and renewed under President Barack Obama in December 2012, allows for electronic surveillance on anyone who is “reasonably believed” to be outside the U.S.

No Indian citizen, government department or organisation has any legal protection from NSA surveillance. In a Joint Statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Security Agency on August 21, 2013, it was stated that “FISA is designed to allow the U.S. Government to acquire foreign intelligence while protecting the civil liberties and privacy of Americans.”

So the NSA had no obstacle — technical or legal — in deploying the PRISM tool against India and Indian citizens. Armed with the FAA and with the active cooperation of the world’s biggest internet brands, the NSA was able to tap specific intelligence from India about the issues which have huge implications for its strategic interests in India. While India’s “nuclear” and “space” programmes have clearly significant commercial value for American firms, the surveillance of “politics” has huge implications for its foreign policy objectives in the region.

“If Americans are listening to our politicians and tapping the phones or reading mails of individuals who handle nuclear and space programmes, they have huge advantage over us in all business and diplomatic negotiations. Even before we go to the table, they know what we are going to put on it. It’s not just violation of our sovereignty, it’s a complete intrusion into our decision-making process,” said a senior official of the Ministry of Home Affairs, who admitted in private that the reports about the scale of NSA surveillance have “rattled” the government.

The NSA document also has names of several Asian, African and Latin American countries from where the American agency picked data about subjects ranging from oil to WTO to government policies, making it clear that the NSA spying was focused on commercial and business areas, and not on its stated objective of national security. “If the American intelligence agencies and business corporations are hunting in pairs, we are bound to lose,” added the Indian official.

More than anything, the targeting of India’s politics and space programme by the NSA busts the myth of close strategic partnership between India and US. The document seen by The Hindu is populated with the countries that are generally seen as adversarial by America. When the PRISM program was disclosed first time in June, a U.S. official had said that information “collected under this program is among the most important and valuable intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats.”

More In: National | News