An Age Of Paranoia And Mass Suspicion ~ prasenjit chowdhury
I AM not sure if Edward Snowden, an American former technical contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee, who leaked details of top-secret American and British government mass surveillance programmes to the press currently on the run, and who during his pre-lapsarian period led a “very comfortable” life earning a salary of roughly $200,000, could be described as a middle class man. But it was Hannah Arendt who concluded that most of the evil in the modern world was actually, and necessarily, carried out by nice, middle-class human beings who were simply trying to make a good living. By that count, Snowden, having been riled as a twenty-something “narcissist” with a hot girlfriend, having staked everything he could call his own, would not fit Arendt&’s description.
In an age when America has gone hyper about cybersecurity, post 9/11 ~ seized of the lessons of ‘the asymmetric adversary’ that were documented in the 9/11 Commission Report ~ Snowden surely is the very personification of evil. From him, the world knew that the USA was involved in counter-espionage against China by having the NSA infiltrate the computer networks of Tsinghua University in Beijing, which houses one of China&’s six major backbone networks through which internet data for millions of Chinese citizens pass. Thanks to Snowden ,we now know that the US did not spare its allies like the European Union and Germany from its snooping. He told Der Spiegel, a German news magazine, that the NSA had been using data from Internet hubs in south and west Germany to monitor Internet traffic to Syria and Mali ~ two hotbeds of Al Qaida ~ by tipping off the enemies of the US to these vital US intelligence operations. Worse, his fatal leaks about details of two NSA spying programmes have sent US intelligence agencies “scrambling to salvage their surveillance of Al Qaida and other terrorists who are working frantically to change how they communicate.”
Another undoing of Snowden must be that he made America lose the moral high ground rendering it unable to proclaim that China was the only Orwellian state along with Russia and Ukraine, known as safe havens for cyber criminals. An intelligence source with extensive knowledge of NSA&’s systems told The Guardian that with both defensive and offensive cyber operations being central to US strategy, “America had participated in offensive cyber operations and widespread hacking ~ breaking into foreign computer systems to mine information”.
It is difficult to assuage the fear that Snowden might fall in the hands of the People&’s Liberation Army ~ one of the most sophisticated cyber-hacking operations in the world ~ credited with having successfully broken into US Defence Department computers and of stealing designs for more than two dozen major weapons systems. Indeed, it is a cakewalk for them to get into Snowden&’s laptops in Hong Kong ~ in sovereign Chinese territory ~ and thus have a prized grab of incendiary intelligence. Snowden&’s revelations that the NSA intercepted the communications of then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and that the NSA had discovered “a change in the way Russian leadership signals have been normally transmitted” and confirmation that he has top-secret documents detailing US cyber-espionage against Moscow make him equally vulnerable.
As per the latest reports, two Latin American countries ~ Venezuela and Nicaragua ~ offered asylum to the CIA whistleblower in complete defiance of the United States. There are thus two more stakeholders to Snowden&’s purloined intelligence.
Particularly suspect is Snowden&’s rite of passage ~ Hong Kong, a city-state in China, Russia allegedly en route to finding asylum in Ecuador. Ironically, such jurisdictions are not exactly known to have much respect for individual freedom, and are not likely to condone acts of whistle-blowing from their own soil. China employed an estimated 40,000 Internet policemen, who in 2009 shut down about 7,000 websites, deleted 1.25 million pieces of information, and arrested 3,500 people, incarcerating many dissidents and bloggers. More, with a view to controlling content uncharitable to China, it employed about 30,000 part-time netizens to intervene in online forum discussions and redirect conversations away from sensitive topics.
Are the threats real? A Canadian information-security group evaluated that the GhostNet cyber spy network successfully perpetrated a sophisticated infiltration of many computers used by governments and non-governmental organisations keeping diplomatic contacts with China that in turn, infected Indian embassies rounding off even the Dalai Lama&’s information systems. Through sophisticated counter-hacking, the Canadian group was able to trace the cyber signal back to control systems in Hainan, China ~ a place known to be the home of a Chinese signals intelligence facility.
A case for cybersecurity could be made in view of two much-publicised cyber-attacks against Georgia in 2007 and Estonia in 2008. In Estonia, cyber attacks were launched as a protest against the decision of the government to relocate a Soviet-era WWII memorial from a central location in the capital city to a military cemetery. In Georgia, cyber attacks were part of the military operations between Georgia and Russia. The attack against an Iranian nuclear plant using the Stuxnet worm in 2010 to cripple the Iranian nuclear programme was a sample of how sophisticated cyber weapons could get, more because that attack required expertise in both cyber attack and in nuclear engineering. The Stuxnet worm has been cited as the concrete example of how an industrial network of critical importance, apparently secure with no communication with the Internet can be compromised and finally forced to stop working. Here was a plot to electronically infiltrate and blow up a nuclear installation with potential to kill tens of thousands and to leave the region radioactive for years. Surely, our on-board computer systems of modern aircraft, warships, and air defence systems operating on wide-area networks might be easily vulnerable anytime.
The Government of India has listed the civil aviation sector, railway passenger reservation system and communication network, port management, companies and organisations in power, oil and natural gas sectors, banking and finance and telecom sectors as critical, apart from certain strategic government departments such as space (ISRO), External Affairs Ministry (passport database), the Home Ministry&’s police and intelligence networks, the Prime Minister&’s Office (PMO), the NSCS and the Cabinet Secretariat. Ironically, we cannot flip the technology, that offers remarkable opportunities to both the state and its citizens. .
There is another twist in Snowden&’s case. The security companies have long relied on creating fear in internet users by hyping the latest threat and thus reaping billions of dollars in security contracts from the US government. The career graph of Mike McConnell who was the NSA director from 1992 to 1996 has been probed to ascertain that it was McConnell who created the company&’s first cyber units. From 2007 to 2009, during which time McConnell was George W Bush&’s director of National Intelligence, he lobbied Congress to revise the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and free the NSA from “burdensome” rules. Upon his return to Booz Allen in 2009, the company paid McConnell $4.1 million (New York Times) to reap in return a net income from government contracts that went from $25 million in 2010 to $219 million “in the [recent] fiscal year.” It is also reported that McConnell is now Booz Allen&’s vice-chairman, and earned a fee of $2.3 million last year.
In this age of paranoia and mass suspicion, there has been an exponential proliferation of secret bureaucracies armed with secret powers and emboldened by the claim of defending the nation. And that logic of national security is so expedient, that it almost overrules the potential benefits of Internet and social networks as tools for protest, campaigning and circulating information, and as vehicles for freedom that lay at the heart of the sweeping political changes in the Arab world and elsewhere. Democratic states tend to repress the citizens in the name of democracy and security, and totalitarian states do that lest the citizens seek democracy and thus thwart their rise to power.
(To be concluded)