Edward Snowden is the computer technician who used to work for a contractor to the US National Security Agency (NSA). After handing out NSA’s secrets he is currently in the transit area of Moscow airport looking for a country to take him in. I gave my simplistic view of such people when posting about Wikileaks over two years ago:
Listening to some of his [Assange’s] former associates the expression attributed to Lenin, ‘useful idiots’, came to mind. While it seems unlikely that the Wikileaks cables initiated the unrest which is spreading through the Middle East, we may well not yet appreciate all the damage that Assange’s activities could cause. The whole underlying principle seems dubious. A bank clerk who steals his employer’s money, even if to give to worthy causes, is a thief and goes to prison. Is that different from an employee who takes his employer’s confidential information and places it in the public domain?Just how revelatory has the Snowden material been? During the last few decades the role of Bletchley Park in handling signals intelligence has been woven into the UK’s mythological tapestry of World War 2 alongside the Battle of Britain and D-Day. It’s also widely understood that GCHQ is Bletchley’s successor, for example in the Mail on Sunday on 14 July:
Many of Britain’s top code-breakers and analysts are able to crack complex problems because they suffer from dyslexia, GCHQ has revealed. A spokesman for the Government’s top-secret electronic eavesdropping station in Cheltenham said last night that some of their most talented code-breakers have difficulty in learning to read or interpreting words. But this can actually help them crack codes, as they ‘see’ things those without the disorder do not.So for many Britons it has been more reassuring than startling to learn that instead of intercepting radio transmissions, attention is nowadays being given to the information hurtling around the internet. The minority of people with a particular interest in this kind of thing will have come across, for example, Richard Aldrich’s GCHQ, James Bamford’s Body of Secrets and Patrick Radden Keefe’s Chatter, not to mention Bamford’s article last year for Wired about the NSA’s Utah Data Center, and won’t have been much surprised in principle about the technical capabilities apparent in the Snowden material. The legality of such data being acquired by states as far as the rights of citizens and international relations are concerned, I will leave to others.
In technical terms what do Snowden’s purloined PowerPoint slides, those which the Guardian first started to reveal on 7 June, actually add? Primarily the names and structure of programmes, the sort of voyeuristic detail which might fascinate because it is intended to be concealed but is now on display for all to see, a sort of NOFORN porn. The fact that large American corporations cooperate with the US government is surely no surprise. And although corporate logos are sprinkled across them, the slides are pretty dull. Only employees who need to master the detail could be expected to sit through such presentations.
The governments of many countries other than the US and UK are well-informed about the activities of NSA, with whom not just the British have links. More informed than they would be solely from the open literature, and more involved than they might want to reveal in public. So many initial overseas reactions to the Snowden leaks were probably calculated to soothe any domestic concerns being stirred up by privacy advocates rather than intended to be rebukes to the US. Triggered by an interview Snowden gave Der Spiegel, France demanded explanations from the US (Espionnage: la France demande des explications aux États-Unis, according to Le Point on 30 June). This met with some cynical responses, including a choice comment from Blogs of War which proposed 10 Short Outrage-Busting Reads on French Spying for President Hollande.
The French then seem to have decided that if their public needed reassurance, it should be that France was up with the hunt. Le Monde on 4 July (Gallic humour) ran an informative article, Révélations sur le Big Brother français:
Si les révélations sur le programme d'espionnage américain Prism ont provoqué un concert d'indignation en Europe, la France, elle, n'a que faiblement protesté. Pour deux excellentes raisons : Paris était déjà au courant. Et fait la même chose.*which made all of us more au courant by providing graphics (below) and announcing the existence of a crack team of crypto-mathématiciens within the Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure (DGSE, an organisation which seems to cover the ground of the UK’s SIS and GCHQ).
The clear message from Le Monde was:
La France est dans le top 5 en matière de capacité informatique, derrière les Etats-Unis, la Grande-Bretagne, Israël et la Chine.**So the French certainly have a word for it.
*If the revelations about the U.S. spying program Prism led a chorus of indignation in Europe, France only raised minor quibbles. For two good reasons: Paris already knew. And does the same thing.
** France is in the top 5 in terms of computing power [for NSA-type activities] behind the United States, Britain, Israel and China.
Back in May, before anyone had heard of Edward Snowden, a post appeared here about the impracticality of London turning itself into a city state. Quite by coincidence, among the assets it identified London having to leave in the rump England were GCHQ and the cables coming ashore in the UK, particularly in SW England. The latter were illustrated with a map obtained using an interactive graphic on the Guardian Datablog. It’s interesting to go back to the same graphic and take a look at the Pacific:
Not too hard to see why Snowden was in Hawaii. On the original, clicking on the green cable to the SSE of Hawaii, apparently going nowhere, reveals it to be Honotua which serves French Polynesia.
UPDATE 14 SEPTEMBER
An article, Ex-MI6 deputy chief plays down damage caused by Snowden leaks, by Richard Norton-Taylor and Dominic Rushe which appeared in the Guardian on 12 September is worth reading in full; extracts:
A former senior British secret intelligence officer on Thursday played down any potential damage done by the leaks to the Guardian of the spying activities of GCHQ and America's National Security Agency, apparently contradicting claims made by UK security chiefs.
The leaks, by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden were "very embarrassing, uncomfortable, and unfortunate", Nigel Inkster, former deputy chief of MI6, said. While Inkster said it was too early to draw any definite conclusions about the impact of the leaks, he added: "I sense that those most interested in the activities of the NSA and GCHQ have not been told very much they didn't know already or could have inferred."
... As for the impact of the revelations about the capabilities of the NSA and GCHQ on allies, Inkster said the reality was any government with a national communications system also had a national signal intelligence capability.
"The tears that have been shed internationally have been of the crocodile variety," he said in an apparent reference to US allies, notably Germany, which have expressed concern about the activities of the NSA and GCHQ and the extent of their ability to intercept communications.
Inkster was speaking at a press conference at the launch of the latest annual Strategic Survey published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He left MI6 after the invasion of Iraq and subsequently criticised how Britain "got dragged into a war". He is currently director of transnational threats and political risk at the institute.
He added that "the degree and scope" of surveillance and eavesdropping by the NSA and GCHQ was a surprising. "I must say that in the space of five years, the technical ability of what the NSA and GCHQ can do is remarkable in getting their arms around a massive surge in communications data."