Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 4 November 2013

Asia in the web of foreign spying

Spying by foreign intelligence agencies is also prevalent in Malaysia and other Asian countries, whether through the internet or spying equipment located in Embassies, as revealed last week.


So last week it was the turn of Asians to learn that their region was also the subject of foreign spying.

This was no surprise.  If American intelligence is spying on Americans, on Latin Americans, and on Europeans (including its top political leader, Angela Merkel of Germany), it is a foregone conclusion that Asia would not be left out.

There is no revelation yet that Asian Prime Ministers and Presidents have had their personal mobile phones and emails tapped.

But it is also a foregone conclusion that these things are happening.  Be prepared therefore to read in the coming weeks about famous Asian leaders, opposition stalwarts, journalists and celebrities being the subjects of snooping.

Nevertheless the news that American and Australian Embassies are being used to snoop on Asian countries justifiably caused outrage in our region.  The Australian surveillance is reportedly in cooperation with the US.

Malaysia is one of the places where Australian intelligence operates to spy, according to reports in the Der Spiegel and Sydney Morning Herald. They revealed that the spying takes place from the Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur.

Other Asian countries where the intelligence collection is conducted is the Australian Embassies in China, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, East Timor and Papua New Guinea.

The news reports also revealed that the US embassies have also been conducting surveillance activities in many Asian countries including Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar.

Malaysia last Friday registered its protests in official notes handed to the Australian High Commissioner and the US deputy chief of Mission who were summoned to Wisma Putra.  The note warned that surveillance of close friends could severely damage relations.

Indonesia warned the US and Australia that continuation of surveillance facilities inside their embassies threaten to derail years of trust built up between countries.
China also responded to the report that the American Embassy in Beijing and consulates in Shanghai and Chengdu operated special spying facilities. Its Foreign Ministry has demanded an explanation from the US, saying that "Foreign entities must not in any form engage in activities that are incompatible with their status and that are harmful to China's national security and interest."

Also last Friday, Brazil and Germany introduced a draft resolution to a United Nations General Assembly committee calling for an end to excessive surveillance. 

The press reports on spying in Asian countries are based on information leaked by Edward Snowden, a former contractor with the US National Security Agency.

Newspapers and magazines had previously revealed that the personal phones of the German Chancellor and the Brazilian President had been tapped.  Both leaders have registered protests directly to US President Barrack Obama.

Last week also saw revelations by the Washington Post that the US and UK intelligence agencies had found a way of intercepting communications from Google as well as Yahoo as the data were being passed between their data centres.  "We are outraged at the lengths to which the government seems to have gone," said Google's chief legal officer.

The internet giant companies have found that their encryptment system protecting email and other information flowing through its data centres are not secure after all from the snooping activities of the spy agencies.

The technology companies are worried that their millions of customers will no longer trust that their privacy will be protected. 

How will this affect the use of browsing, email, facebook, and other facets of the internet technology?

US companies and entities currently dominate the global internet business.  Much of the world's flow of data go through internet companies based in the US. 

The US administration had projected itself as a honest host of the internet centres, respecting the rights and privacy of the world's internet and email users, and a champion of internet freedom.

That image has been shattered by the series of revelations emerging from Snowden's leaked files.  The opposite image has replaced it, of a government that has used high technology to gather billions of bits of data on practically all internet users.

If counter-terrorisms was the official reason, this now seems to be only a pretext for also spying on any important person, including one's closest allies.  

Now that they have lost confidence that the US or other countries will respect privacy of the politicians, companies and citizens of their countries, some governments are now planning to limit the reach of American-based internet companies.

The Financial Times reports that:

--  Brazil is planning regulations that would force technology companies to retain information on the internet about its citizens and institutions within Brazil itself.

--  European officials are discussing the need to have stronger cloud computing capabilities in Europe to protect their citizens' privacy.

Brazil is also planning to bring up in various United Nations agencies and fora the need for a global framework to respect and protect privacy on the internet.