The art and science of communications intelligence

In March 1950, the National Security Council of the United States of America issued a top-secret directive that, in ways few people fully understood then or since, transformed our world. “The special nature of Communications Intelligence activities,” it reads, “requires that they be treated in all respects as being outside the framework of other or general intelligence activities. Orders, directives, policies or recommendations of the Executive Branch relating to the collection, production, security, handling, dissemination or utilisation of intelligence and/or classified material shall not be applicable to Communications Intelligence activities.”

Less than two decades after that directive was signed, the U.S. controlled the most formidable system of surveillance the world has ever seen: satellites and listening posts strung across the planet picked up everything from radio-telephone conversations from cars in Moscow to transatlantic telephone conversations and data on India's nuclear programme. Known as Echelon, the system provided the western powers with an unprecedented information edge over their adversaries.

From data obtained by WikiLeaks, working with an international consortium of media organisations, including The Hindu, and other partners, we have the first real public domain insights into how much more advanced — and how much more widely available — this surveillance system has become.

The South African firm Vastech, for example, offers systems that can capture data flowing across telecommunications and internet networks in multiples of ten gigabites, and scan it for pre-determined parameters — the voice of an individual; a particular language; a phone number; an e-mail address. The Indian companies, Shoghi and ClearTrail, The Hindu found, market systems that can capture giant volumes of traffic from mobile phone and satellite networks and subject it to similar analysis. France's Amesys is among several companies to have provided equipment like this to states like Libya — enabling their parent state access to the buyer's own communications, through electronic back-doors, but at the price of allowing them to spy on dissidents, with often horrific consequences.

In coming days, The Hindu will report on the consequences of the proliferation of surveillance technology — but it is important, first, to understand the state of the science of communications espionage.

Evolving technology

Interception technologies are as old as communications. Julius Caesar, the imperial historian Suetonius recorded, was concerned enough about the prospect of his military communications being intercepted — in general, by the simple expedient of corrupting or capturing his messengers — to use what cryptographers call a substitution cipher — replacing the letter A with D, B with E and so on. Had one of Caesar's military messages contained a reference to The Hindu, it would have read Wkh Klqgx. Elizabeth I's spymaster, Robert Walsingham, excelled in using spies to capture information on Spain's military ambitions, and plots against his queen.

Early ciphers were easy to crack with techniques like frequency analysis, leading intelligence services to design ever more complex codes. The eminent science journalist Simon Singh's >Virtual Black Chamber — so named for the rooms espionage agencies used to crack enemy codes — has a fascinating historical account of the never-ending battle between cryptographers and cryptanalysts (as well as online tools for aspiring amateur code-makers and code-breakers).

The rise of wireless communication in the early decades of the twentieth century, though, made it possible for information to be passed instantly across great distances — and for states to begin intercepting it. From 1925, Germany began deploying a path-breaking mechanical encrypted-communication system code-named Enigma, which resisted the combined efforts of cryptanalysts — thus allowing the Nazi military machine an unprecedented degree of secrecy in its military communications, and facilitating its new strategy of high-speed mechanised war.

In 1939, the Polish mathematician, Marian Rejewski, led a team that made some breakthroughs against Enigma, based on studies of a machine stolen by the country's spies. Then, in 1943, a top-secret British team, made up of an eclectic collection of scholars, technicians, and scientists led by the mercurial Alan Turing, used electromechanical devices — the first computers — to finally crack the Enigma code. Even then, full penetration of Enigma's naval variant needed a daring raid that allowed code-books to be salvaged from the submarine U559, without allowing Germany to suspect the vital information had not gone to the sea-bed.

Experts have claimed that breaking Enigma hastened the end of the war by two years. Winston Churchill, the United Kingdom's wartime Prime Minister, described the work of the code-breakers as a “secret war, whose battles were lost or won unknown to the public, and only with difficulty comprehended, even now, by those outside the small, high scientific circles concerned.” “No such warfare had ever been waged by mortal men,” he said. The secret war involved hideous choices — for instance, allowing German air and naval attacks to kill allied soldiers when they could have been pre-empted, in order not to raise suspicions that Enigma had been compromised.

Big Brother Science

Learning from their experience, the allied powers invested heavily in communications intelligence after the end of World War II. In 1947, the four English-speaking powers — the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand — signed a treaty allowing for the sharing of intelligence. Listening stations run by the four countries across the world, supplemented from the 1970s by satellites, allowed a new software system — known as Echelon — to suck up virtually all electronic communication from around the planet. For example, part of the inter-city microwave signals carrying phone traffic went into space, because of the curvature of the earth. The NSA's satellites would pick up the data—and Echelon would mine it for useful data.

In the 1990s, a steady flow of information in Echelon came into the public domain, based on disclosures by the former Canadian spy Mike Frost, New Zealand's Nicky Hager, American James Bamford, and British journalist Duncan Campbell. India itself was using some Echelon-like signals intelligence technologies by this time. The United States had begun to supply the Research and Analysis Wing's Aviation Research Centre equipment to spy on China's nuclear programme and naval assets from 1962; acquisitions were also made from the Soviet Union.

Public disclosure of Echelon raised growing concerns that it might be misused for states to conduct espionage against their own citizens, as well as to further their commercial interests. In 2000 and 2001, the European Parliament released reports addressing these issues.

The furore forced former CIA director James Woolsey to admit, at a press conference held in 2000, that the United States did conduct espionage in Europe. Mr Woolsey said, however, that just 5 per cent of his country's economic intelligence was derived from stolen secrets — and used to target states or corporations that were either violating international sanctions or paying bribes to gain contracts. He said intelligence of this kind was not passed on to companies in the United States — adding that to harvest usable commercial information would mean resources were sucked away from the core national-security mandate of his organisation.

Fred Stock, a former Canadian intelligence officer, earlier gave testimony that suggested Mr. Woolsey's claims were, at best, a part of the truth. Mr. Stock said he had been expelled from his service in 1993 for criticising its targeting of economic and civilian targets — among them, information on negotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Chinese grain purchases, and French weapons sales. He claimed Canada's spies also routinely monitored high-seas protests by the environmental organisation, Greenpeace.

Evidence also exists that the NSA spied on U.S. targets — though not on U.S. soil, thus bypassing national legislation. Margaret Newsham, who worked at Echelon's Menwith Hill facility from 1977 to 1981, testified that conversations involving the late Senator Strom Thurmond had been intercepted. The technology to target conversations involving particular people, she said, had existed from 1978. Ms Newsham's revelations seemed to buttress what many had long suspected — which is that the 1947 agreement allowed the U.S. and the U.K. to spy on their own citizens, by the simple expedient of subcontracting the task to their alliance partner.

Few people, however, remained willing to deal with these concerns after 9/11: increasingly, western governments allowed enhanced surveillance against their citizens, as part of the so-called war against terror. The data gathered by WikiLeaks and its partners graphically demonstrate that almost every aspect of our everyday lives — everything from the hubs of the fibre-optic cables which carry the world's e-mail and internet traffic to mobile and landline phone conversations — can, and are, scanned by intelligence services. The odds are that when you read this article, replete with words like “terrorism,” a computer somewhere is recording your activity, automatically recording your computer's precise geographical location, and matching all this against public records that contain your details.

In most democracies, there are stringent legislative safeguards against the abuse of these capabilities: the United States Senate maintains a relatively tight leash on the country's intelligence services; in Australia, a commissioner can even conduct raids at the offices of its spies without a warrant. India, however, has only a rudimentary legal infrastructure — and no worthwhile legislative oversight, raising concerns described in a >story in The Hindu.

Few people, as Churchill pointed out so many decades ago, fully understand the consequences the capacities of states to monitor our wired world — but it is time citizens started marking the effort, for the alternative is to lose the rights these technologies were created to defend.

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Printable version | Jun 16, 2021 10:32:13 AM |

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