Sunday, 9 June 2013

We need to talk about digital spying in the modern age - Part 2

The reality is, the kind of threat most Americans – and anybody in the developed world – faces does not come from international terror groups anymore and probably not from nation states either. Most countries are more than happy to rhetorically complain and go through the motions of preparing for war without actually moving in that direction.

The benefits of peace are too great to risk throwing it all away over pseudo-nationalism or petty territorial disputes. While stateless groups, such as Al Qaeda, are so severely degraded and depleted following their evisceration at the hands of Western military and intelligence assets, that today there is no such thing as an international terrorist organisation which even comes close to those of the late 1990’s or early 2000’s.

Instead, the greatest threat to the Western way of life - not simply confined to America in this case - is the very citizens residing inside Western countries. Attacks over the past few years in the United States and Britain alone have been conducted almost exclusively by natural born or adopted citizens of those countries.

This fact conjures a terribly difficult conundrum for Western intelligence agencies. On the one hand they have to carry out a mandate to protect the lives of their fellow citizens. And in the good old days, when threats emerged principally from overseas locations (putting aside a certain amount of homegrown terrorist acts like the Unabomber, Basque separatists, or the IRA), it was relatively simple to aggressively monitor and collect information about those groups or individuals and hopefully interdict their attacks. On the other hand, those same intelligence agencies have been paying attention to the trends of terrorism and wound up looking in their own backyards instead on the hunt to protect their fellow citizens.

It might appear to be different, but the threat is the same. People are still willing to sacrifice their lives to do as much damage to Western targets as possible to further their ideological or religious cause. These people exist all over the planet and probably always will. Almost every day some sort of terrorist attack occurs somewhere. Countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Mali, Somalia, Pakistan, Russia, and the Philippines are considered “normal” places for terrorism. Only snippets of airtime in Western media are devoted to coverage of these atrocities which regularly kill people in the double or triple figures. Yet when a bomb detonates in Boston in the United States, killing 3 people, the coverage continues for weeks.

Of course, when a terrible event occurs closer to the home ground, the reaction from the American media will be more pronounced. This is a given. But when the trend towards attacks emanating from inside Western countries – so-called “grassroots terrorism” – becomes more visible and obvious, the agencies tasked with protecting their advanced and democratic societies are faced with tough choices. No longer can they say terrorism is a foreign problem, when it is very clear many attacks are perpetrated by Western citizens living sometimes just down the road. Things have changed immensely since Al Qaeda struck New York in 2001.

After the 9/11 attacks the NSA was asked by then U.S. President George W. Bush to ramp up its monitoring of the United States to ensure against a follow-on attack. The dangerous powers temporarily given to the NSA in those hectic days were rescinded somewhat as time marched on and the threat of more Al Qaeda attacks dissipated.

The feeling at the time was that although the terrorist threat against America was real, the equally dangerous threats against freedom and privacy of the average American was also very real if surveillance continued unabated. A decade ago, it was quickly realised most of the people wishing to do harm to the United States were actually thousands of miles away and entirely within the operational limits of normal, pre-9/11 NSA SIGINT collection. So the digital ears were once again pointed away from the continental United States.

However, as the struggle against global terror evolved, those same ears were picking up rumours of United States citizens plotting to conduct terrible attacks inside their own country. Many of these attackers made contact with foreign members of terrorist groups for training or ideological support, but ultimately their drive and motivation was self-sufficient. Such individuals are inherently difficult to track and locate because they do not communicate their plans with others. Realising the trend of terrorism was turning towards this particular style of militancy, intelligence agencies scrambled to update their surveillance measures leading to programs like the recently revealed PRISM and others.

Thankfully, many of the would-be grassroots terrorists in the United States and other Western countries have been generally incompetent to the point of farce. Many of them deserve the sarcastic nomenclature of “Kramer jihadists”, after the bumbling Seinfeld character. Unfortunately, in preferring to maximise their secrecy and decrease the chance of discovery, grassroots terrorists usually sacrifice the benefits of training with fellow ideologues and learn the specific skills necessary to carry out terrorist attacks. Their inability to carry out the simplest attacks and constant overestimation of their operational skills is one of the major reasons so few attacks have occurred in the West.

Even though the NSA has been collecting information from all over the internet, it is unlikely that they can claim full responsibility for many successful interdictions of grassroots terrorism. The very nature of the NSA and intelligence work is secretive, so we will likely never fully know the success or extent of their surveillance measures. And the chances are high that the “Five Eyes” SIGINT group (United States, Canada, United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia) has broken many more plots against the West than will ever be released to the public.

Part 1, Part 3, Part 4

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