Tuesday, 24 March 2015

What you need to know about modern spying

I can’t believe I have to go through this again. Most people will be feeling a bit of intelligence-fatigue at this point. Week after week, the exposure of spy actions has been unrelenting and not a little draining.

If we’re to believe the rumours, former National Security Agency (NSA) technician Edward Snowden could have taken delivered to journalists up to a million files stolen from the agency. Media outlets could dedicate an entire section to NSA leaks for the foreseeable future, and not miss a week.

Some of his documents have been heavily controversial, others – not so much. But the impact of the revealed information is clearly diminishing in the public eye, especially now that the leaks are built to hurt not inform.
Almost nothing in the latest series of files about New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) could be called a revelation for people who understand the dynamics and constraints of the international community. Civil libertarians throughout the countries of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand have seized on questionable evidence that the partnership known as the Five Eyes is consistently overstepping its legal and ethical boundaries. They are out for blood.

At every turn, their claims have proven false or drummed up as representing something they are certainly not. The NSA and GCSB are searching the cyber world for clues in defence of their nations, but the agencies are careful not to intrude on their fellow citizen’s communications.

In instances where the agencies have looked or listened to domestic citizen’s data, the agencies have been surprisingly effective at self-policing. Courts were informed, reparative measures enacted and more care was taken in the future. Without the leaks, it would have been entirely impossible to verify that the NSA or GCSB actually did adhere to laws. It was the files themselves - meant to be secret for 50 or more years - which confirm how careful the agencies are in respecting the twin values of security and privacy at home.

But the documents also show how difficult it is to conduct useful signals intelligence in the modern era. As I’ve written many times before, the realities of the internet mean collecting intelligence on threats can no longer be isolated to “only” those threats.

There isn’t a civil libertarian alive who’d complain about the GCSB or NSA intercepting Soviet electromagnetic signals bouncing over the permafrost across the Ural Mountains. The threat was known and geographically isolated. The agencies were looking for words such as “launch” to ascertain whether the Soviet threat was developing or not.

It can be almost guaranteed this vast signals intelligence apparatus during the Cold War intercepted and stored electromagnetic signals emitted by private citizens in an effort to monitor the Soviets. Although the quantity of signals – from radios both amateur and sophisticated - emitted by its own domestic citizens was real, it was not the primary means of communication for those people. The NSA gathered private information back then, but only as an ancillary action – not a primary action. The primary targets were the Soviet ICBM fields in Siberia, not the odd radio message from John Smith in the UK.

The major problem now is that all those easier-to-intercept electromagnetic signals one day suddenly switched to underground cabling. Everything switched - including the private communications of its citizens - to a new technology called the internet. The internet wraps everybody’s communications into the same fibre-optic wiring, launching it piecemeal across the globe through hundreds of different jurisdictions on its journey to whichever computer either sends or requests the data.

Often signals from terrorists or criminals are mixed with the emails of US or New Zealand persons who were only talking to relatives or business colleagues in other countries. The documents released by Mr Snowden actually expose how the NSA and GCSB agencies gather this private information, but they are quick to destroy or disregard it in the search for true nuggets of intelligence hidden in the larger pile.

This is simply the reality for intelligence gathering in the 21st century. And in order to conduct proper government of a modern state, its intelligence agencies needed to adapt to this new environment. Unfortunately, this adaptation has brought the agencies into tension with people who believe security and privacy are not equal values. They believe those values should compete in a zero-sum game. This is not a new tension - it dates back to the impact of George III’s excessive policies in Britain - but the current conversation has taken on a larger perspective with the invention of the internet and the resultant highly-evolved concept of privacy.

So if this is the way things are, how should we view the recent documents describing the GCSB’s foreign intelligence operations?

Again, I have argued previously that the documents chosen by Mr Snowden moved very quickly from exposing the NSA’s private communications intercepts, to revealing as much information about how the agency conducts its intelligence operations.

The documents were released to coincide with locally important political events (such as the New Zealand election, and recently the South Korean free trade deal) or as barely-veiled attempts to scuttle diplomatic and economic relations between large countries (US spying activities on Germany or China for instance).

All this information was surprising to people not familiar with international relations or intelligence matters, but the mere fact that the Five Eyes partnership spies on foreign nations isn’t unusual or overly damaging. What is damaging is releasing how those countries conduct its intelligence interception. Rather than informing the populace, almost all the documents released since late 2013 have been designed to break the worldwide intelligence partnership. The people involved are out for blood.

In truth, the concept of “leaks” is a misnomer. What Mr Snowden revealed was not a bucket or two describing disparate parts of the NSA or GCSB. He revealed the underlying plumbing chugging away behind the agency’s walls.

The NSA can’t say anything, but most of its operations will now be defunct after the entire world learnt how and where it spies. Everything must now be rebuilt as the agencies won’t know which operations or projects have been compromised. Most of this public and ideological anger comes from a misunderstanding. Ironically, this misunderstanding was exacerbated by the very governments now trying to defend the agencies.

The mistake was to assume the GCSB and the NSA exist for the sole purpose of keeping its citizens safe from harm. A common government refrain since 9/11 has been to prefer the nomenclature “security services” over “intelligence agencies” to describe the operations of its spies.

It fed a narrative that directly assisted in the expansion of operational and legal powers of spy agencies following 9/11 to better defend against the expanded terrorist threat. Yet that narrative has now led to absurd comments in 2015 by Labour leader Andrew Little about how the GCSB spying on the World Trade Organisation is “outrageous”.

“These actions are a massive misuse of an agency which should be focused on our security threats, not the future employment prospects of a minister,” Mr Little says.

Green co-leader Russel Norman has voiced similar objections that the GCSB spies on targets which are not clear security threats, and therefore should cease these operations. But this is a complete misunderstanding of intelligence processes and purposes. Not only is intelligence gathering an internationally accepted practice conducted by every country on the planet, it is an old practice dating to the beginning of civilisation.

What Mr Little and Mr Norman fail to understand is that assistance in governance and protection of its citizens shouldn’t limit an intelligence agency to watching for security threats. Strictly speaking, that’s the job of law enforcement. The GCSB can assist law enforcement, but its role is larger.

The GCSB doesn’t only spy on bad people, it spies on interesting people too. And more importantly, it spies on people who are making decisions which could affect New Zealand. To know what a negotiating partner is planning before the talks begin will always help New Zealand’s strategy. If this concept makes you queasy, perhaps international relations and trade discussions aren’t the best place for your efforts. While it might seem ethical to command the GCSB to cease intelligence gathering on trade negotiations, there is absolutely no compulsion for the other side to follow suit.

The GCSB is a modern intelligence agency operating to both protect and support the state-craft of New Zealand and its allies. That the agency spies on important and interesting people for the benefit of its leaders is not a nefarious activity. Far from it. On the contrary, they prove the GCSB is conducting its primary purpose: collecting intelligence. And we should be proud that the agency is so advanced, even though its intelligence couldn’t help Trade Minister Tim Groser gain the WTO director-general role.

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