Maverick spooks

To date, astronomers have discovered more than 1800 exoplanets. Even though these planets are beyond our solar system and too far away to see, astronomers know they are there because of the decrease in visual brightness when the planet passes between its star and our viewpoint. This technique, known as transit photometry, provides reliable clues to the planets existence.

Like exoplanets, from our viewpoint we also can’t see much of what goes on inside state intelligence agencies. For obvious reasons. However, every now and again, we get clues, providing insight into mere dots of internal activity. Yet it is when we connect these dots that things become rather alarming – a picture emerges indicating maverick intelligence agencies, blurred lines and very murky waters.

Spaghetti western movies made it clear who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. In today’s world of digital spy tools, this distinction has blurred. It used to be that only the bad guys infected computer systems with malware – criminals out to steal money and identities. In early 2013, Mandiant added the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to the list of bad guys when they exposed an espionage campaign to steal secrets from Western corporations. The West readily accepted a nation state actor in this role and quickly lumped the Chinese army in with the bad guys.

Last month we became aware of Regin, a RAT with the most sophisticated anti-detection mechanisms ever seen. It is believed to be the work of a Western intelligence agency, most likely Britain’s GCHQ, perhaps with NSA involvement. Regin has infiltrated corporations in Russia, Saudi Arabia and a host of other places. It infiltrated systems in the telecommunications company Belgacom, as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. The IAEA inspect nuclear facilities (such as in Iran) to check if the rules are being followed – they are the good guys.

In reaction to the Snowden revelations, President Obama indicated back in August 2013 that it was time for intelligence agencies to be more transparent – “let’s put the whole elephant out there so that people know exactly what they are looking at”, he said. However, this has not happened. Our increased knowledge about Five Eyes intelligence agencies has not come from the agencies themselves, it has come from leaks, conjecture and the discovery of malware such as Regin. Last week for example, we learned that the NSA (supported by GCHQ) tapped into 70% of the world’s phone networks. By intercepting email communications of phone company employees, intelligence agencies planted backdoors into the telecommunication networks allowing them access. This short video shows the reaction of senior engineers at Stellar, the German satellite internet provider, on learning that they had been hacked by GCHQ.

So who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? Distinctions are blurred. Do Western leaders even know what their agencies are up to, or are they as surprised as we are by each new revelation? Is there any difference between the activities of the NSA/GCHQ and the Chinese PLA Unit 61398? Are Five Eyes intelligence agencies out of control?

Britain has a long history of influence around the world. Centuries of colonialism, and active involvement in other regions such as in the Middle East. Cosy relationships have enabled British big business to leverage their government’s global influence for gain. US big business has also benefited from their government’s position as the world’s policeman over the past century. Fascinating examples of the willingness of government agencies to benefit big business are in the history of the global oil market. We do not yet know the extent to which western big business is currently gaining favour and advantage through cosy relationships with their country’s intelligence agencies.

This past decade has seen massive increases in the activities of Five Eyes intelligence agencies. GCHQ for example now employs double the number of people as MI5 and MI6 combined. Agencies appear to act with little or no checks and balances, without the knowledge of the country’s democratically-elected leaders. Most of our leaders don’t have the deep technical knowledge to fully appreciate the consequences of intrusive activities by these agencies. Intelligence agencies appear to be maverick, out of control units, with an insatiable need for more and more data which translates into power.

Society should debate whether we really need and want these intrusions into privacy. Does society support the Council for Europe’s call for more transparency regarding Five Eyes intelligence gathering? Public discussion is vital because when the dots are joined it appears that GCHQ, NSA and other Five Eyes agencies may have gone rogue.

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