The secret NSA files drip-fed to the media over the past year continue to hit headlines across the world. While the first series of revelations in the final half of 2013 were handpicked to irritate domestic American privacy concerns, most of the files dumped into newspapers over the last few months now appear chosen to damage the US government as much as possible.
Edward Snowden, the analyst who allegedly removed thousands of classified documents from US government computers, has cooperated with international journalists to publish the classified material while living in Russia (a country which is not exactly a shining beacon of human freedom).
The latest tranche of documents includes information suggesting the US National Security Agency (NSA) created “backdoors” into computers belonging to Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technologies. Email accounts, communications between top company officials, and the extremely sensitive source-code of individual Huawei products may have been gathered by a project named in the colourful spook parlance as “SHOTGIANT”.
According to the documents, NSA could use their access to Huawei’s system to roam freely through computer and telephone networks to conduct espionage and potentially carry out offensive cyber operations. The attraction of breaking into Huawei Technology’s system apparently arises from a need to gain surveillance access to phone hardware not produced in the United States.
“Many of our targets communicate over Huawei-produced products,” one NSA slide read. “We want to make sure that we know how to exploit these products,” it added, to “gain access to networks of interest”.
As has become Mr Snowden’s modus operandi, the documents were released in slide-form to multiple news outlets simultaneously. They reveal a complex new layer in the United States’ increasingly dangerous digital cold war with China. Both countries have stated publicly that the other is constantly stepping over the line when it comes to cyber operations and cyber espionage.
US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping discussed the cyber thorn during a particularly heralded meeting in early 2013. At the time, the NSA revelations were yet to surface and the Chinese government was under pressure to cease its worldwide hacking attempts, or at least scale them back.
Ex-NSA and CIA Director Michael Hayden, speaking that year at a conference for intelligence officials and business heads, said that he “stood in awe at the depth and breadth” of the Chinese cyber espionage efforts during his time at the helm. Until the Snowden documents began to appear, it was assumed this Chinese push had compromised the internet and forever changed how digital communications would process. Huawei was just the most public face of this push.
Perhaps the Chinese are using a telecom provider to spy on other nations. Evidence confirming this is classified and decidedly sketchy. But in a twist of relatively expected irony, the United States may just have formulated their warnings about Huawei’s cyber efforts because they conducted almost mirror-image hacking projects on the Chinese telecom.
Yet a legitimate question still remains about why, if the US is so adamant about using its own cyber powers strictly for security and counter-terrorism, must it be necessary for them to hack into another country’s telecom company?
Breaking into the Chinese company appears to have grown from a recognised need to strengthen the cyber security for America’s - and its allies’ - citizens from a suspected foreign intelligence service which allegedly uses a successful telecom company as a front. The exposed documents do not, however, suggest the United States exploits the collected intelligence to assist American telecom companies in gaining greater market-share.
That is simply not the American way of doing intelligence. Employing spy agencies to boost US companies is not a line even the most notorious NSA operators are willing to cross, yet. Other nations may hack American companies to steal their secrets, but, as far as the evidence reveals, the US does not.
Mr Snowden’s latest revelations are interesting and offer some vindication for concerns about Huawei Technology’s true goals, and, at least to this writer, paint the US as a prudent intelligence agency serving the needs of its citizens to ensure greater security in their livelihoods. Not as a rogue agency drunk on its own cyber-power.
In an age of distributed technology networks and disguised criminal/terrorist groups, the NSA’s ability to exploit any communication tool those groups might choose to use is extremely important for all of us. Our very lives could one day depend on it.
That those tools may belong to a Chinese telecom company appears to be ancillary to the NSA’s goal to covertly build the suspected backdoors into phone products.
Perhaps the most bothering aspect in Mr Snowden’s releases is that they no longer meet his stated goal of exposing the US government’s complicity in American privacy breaches. Instead, he and his followers are now revealing information which directly harms America’s and it allies’ national security. New Zealand will not escape this pain either, because it is deeply tied into US intelligence efforts.
Exposing the NSA’s sources and methods of gathering intelligence offers its many rivals a laundry list of perfect alterations it must make to plug gaps in its systems. This goes for Huawei as much as it does al Qaeda, as well as plenty of other foreign groups wishing to do harm to the United States and its allies.
We’ll likely never know how much damage the Snowden leaks have done to US intelligence efforts. But the motive and goals behind the Mr Snowden’s actions are becoming more transparent with each classified slide. Those motives are, and probably never were, about increasing American public freedom. They are about hurting the US, plain and simple.