Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 28 October 2013

Cyber spying scandal snowballs

The internet spying scandal escalated last week as European leaders expressed disgust they were spied while countries begin to plan counter measures   


The scandal over internet spying by the United States keeps snowballing as Germany’s top political leader expressed disgust that her personal mobile phone had been tapped.

A few days later it was revealed that the phones of 35 political leaders around the world had also been tapped by 2006.  It is publicly unknown how many more leaders have been personally spied on since then.

Among the leaders who have been eavesdropped on, protests have been registered by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff. 

The email account of former Mexican President, Felipe Calderon, was also hacked into, according to reports.

A leaked memo revealed that officials from various US government departments who mixed with world leaders and other senior officials have been collecting their mobile phone numbers and passing them on to the National Security Agency.   

Presumably it is not only their mobile phones but also their emails and internet browsings that have been spied on.

No one likes their privacy to be invaded, especially so pervasively. If close allies of the US can be subjected to such surveillance, what about all other leaders around the world?

If famous political leaders can be spied on, what about the rest of us, the ordinary citizens of the world?

An outraged Merkel said last week:   “We need trust among allies and partners. Such trust now has to be built anew …We are allies. But such an alliance can only be built on trust.”

According to a Reuters report, Merkel suspected the surveillance after finding her mobile phone number written on a US document.  During a phone call to President Obama, she called for US surveillance to be placed on a new legal footing.

Earlier, Obama spoke to French President Francois Hollande after French public outrage that the NSA had accessed 70 million phone records of French citizens in a 30-day period. 

The French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called the US Ambassador to France to his office to protest and is reported to say:  “This sort of practice between partners that invades privacy is totally unacceptable, and we have to make sure, very quickly, that this no longer happens.”

Last month, I was at the UN General Assembly hall when Brazil’s President Dilma made a lengthy attack on the US surveillance and called for international action to regulate such spying through the internet.

There was pin-drop silence when Dilma made her speech, which opened the General Assembly’s summit session, with the US President Barrack Obama in the audience.

Last week was Europe’s turn to express anger.  At a European Union summit last Friday, Germany and France led a move for new rules between Europe and the US on intelligence and security service behaviour.

The European parliament also voted to suspend a US-Europe agreement to share bank data after a German magazine revealed that the NSA was monitoring the Swift, the international bank transfer system, indicating information was being collected on citizens’ personal financial data.

Elmar Brok, chairperson of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee last week described the US security agencies as a creepy “state within a state” and that “the balance between freedom and security has been lost.”

Countries and organisations are now planning their own actions to block US internet spying.

To bypass internet traffic through the US, Brazil plans to lay an underwater cable to Europe and also link to other South American countries in a network it hopes is free from US eavesdropping, according to a press report.

The head of the US-based ICANN (internet corporation for assigned names and numbers) which controls domain names and internet addresses, met with Brazilian President Dilma and vowed to support her moves to counter US cyber spying.

ICANN and other internet organisations (W3C, Internet Society, Internet Engineering Task Force) issued a statement condemning the US surveillance and called for an internationalisation of the Internet’s basic framework.

Ideas are developing to develop new software to protect against spying, “from new encrypted email programmes to technology that sprinkles the internet with red flag terms to confuse would-be snoops”, according to a AP press report.

But of course for every new software developed, a competent spy agency can develop another software to counter it.   So a political solution is needed.

In the weeks ahead, expect more revelations and more reports on plans by more countries to counter internet spying.  Where this will all lead remains to be seen.