5 August 2017

Hello! Big Brother is Listening to all your Mobile and Internet Conversations.


For 2017 the number of mobile phoneusers is forecast to reach 4.77 billion. The number of mobile phone users in the world is expected to pass the five billion mark by 2019. In 2016, an estimated 62.9 percent of the population worldwide already owned a mobile phone. Of these, India and China alone accounted for about 2.5 billion. The USA followed with 327 million and a dysfunctional country like Pakistan had 125 million. Even in countries with little semblance of a government or a state, like Somalia and Afghanistan or Mali or Libya, there are functioning mobile phone networks. There are almost four billion Internet users world over now. Of these 44.8% were in Asia, 21.5% in Europe and 11.4% in all of North America. India was one of the last countries operating a telegraph service and as of this month even that is now in the past. Literally, it’s all up in the air nowadays.

Quite clearly, we are talking and communicating more with each other. Billions of messages flit through the ether each day. That’s why this is called the communications era. People are constantly communicating. This has led to new forms of business and new forms of doing business. Any kind of business. With that small gizmo in your hand, that often nowadays packs more power than a bank of PC’s half a dozen years ago, you can buy an airline ticket in another continent or send flowers to a special friend in yet another one. There can be other less benign uses also. A terrorist can detonate a secreted bomb in a distant country with a mobile phone call. Criminals can orchestrate their activities without moving from their lairs. This new technology has posed many new challenges to the modern state, and like before every modern state has to defend itself against some enemy or the other. But states with the technical means and the financial resources have, as always, risen to the challenges, and we see this in action in a variety of ways. It also poses new challenges to the law-abiding citizens right to privacy.

Lets discuss this a bit. In the pre-mobile phone era, and that was not very long ago, the state did always try to glean information germane to the well being of its citizenry through the well known conventional methods. They were easier days, even if they were till into the mid and late 90’s. The numbers of people of interest were few and they were not so easily concealed. Means of communication were relatively easy to police and there were far fewer of them available. Mobile telephony has changed all that. Cellular phones are now easily available. They no longer tether a person to a place and identity. Mobile telephony gives people reach, spread, speed and above all a greater anonymity.

But since data exchanged on cellular and Internet networks fly through the ether and not as pulses racing through copper wires, they are easier to net by electronic interception. But these nets catch them in huge numbers. Unlike before when the signals to be intercepted and deciphered were a few, now you had millions to sort out and analyze for content and patterns.

This is where the supercomputers come in. The messages that are netted every moment are run through sieves of sophisticated and complex computer programs that can simultaneously decode, detect and unravel, and by further analyzing the incoming and outgoing patterns of calls and data transfers for the sending and receiving terminals or phones, can with a fair probability of accuracy tell the agency seeking information about what is going on and who is up to what?

The problem is that since this information also goes through the mobile phone network and Internet Service Providers (ISP), and the data actually gets decoded from electronic blips into voice and digital data, the private players too gain access to such information.

A few years ago we had the case of the infamous Amar Singh CD’s which titillated so many with its graphic content and lowbrow conversations featuring the likes of Anil Ambani, Jayaprada, Bipasha Basu and some others. Then we had the episode of the Radia tapes where we were privy to the machinations of the Tata’s corporate lobbyist in the national capital fixing policy, positioning ministers and string pulling media stars. But more usefully than this, a mobile phone, by nature of its technology, is also a personalized GPS indicator. It tells them where that phone is at any instant it is on. The Al Qaeda terrorist and US citizen Anwar el-Awlaki was blasted by a Hellfire missile fired from a CIA Predator drone flying over Yemen with the co-ordinates provided by Awlaki’s mobile phone. In another place and time the satellite phone used by the Chechen renegade, Major General Dzokhar Dudayev gave the Russian Air Force the beacon it was looking for. A Russian missile hit Dudayev with precision accuracy.

Since a mobile phone is usually with you it tells the network (and other interested parties) where you are or were, and even where you are headed. If you are on a certain street, since it reveals where exactly you are and the direction of your movement, it can tell you where the next pizza place is or where and what is on sale. This is also breach of privacy, but often useful to you. But if you are up to no-good, then a switched on mobile phone is a certain giveaway. That’s what gave away Osama bi Laden in the end. A momentary indiscretion by a trusted courier and bodyguard and a name gleaned from a long ago water-boarding session was all it took.

In 2002, interrogators had heard uncorroborated claims about an al-Qaeda courier with the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti (sometimes referred to as Sheikh Abu Ahmed from Kuwait). One of those claims came from Mohammed al-Qahtani, a detainee interrogated for 48 days continuously between November 23, 2002 and January 11, 2003 in a secret rendition camp in Poland. At some point during this period, al-Qahtani told interrogators about a man known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti who was part of the inner circle of al-Qaeda.

In 2004, a prisoner named Hassan Gul claimed that al-Kuwaiti was close to bin Laden as well as Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Mohammed’s successor Abu Faraj al-Libbi. Gul revealed that al-Kuwaiti had not been seen in some time, which led U.S. officials to suspect he was traveling with bin Laden. In 2007, officials learned al-Kuwaiti’s real name was Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed; he was a Pathan from Pakistan’s Swat Valley. The CIA had a clutch of phone numbers that were used sometime or the other by Al Qaeda couriers. For most of the time these numbers would remain shut. They would come to life very briefly to pass very terse messages or have very short conversations. In one of these conversations, al-Kuwaiti tells his friend that he is now working with the people he was with before. This was enough of a break for the CIA to put him under full time physical surveillance. A satellite picked him up in Karachi and tracked him. This led to him and his brother Abrar with their families to that now very famous house in Abottabad.

The tracking down of Osama bin Laden to his hideout was probably one of the great detective stories of the age, Most of the credit for this must go to the secretive US intelligence gathering organization, the National Security Agency. The NSA’s eavesdropping mission includes radio broadcasting, both from various organizations and individuals, the Internet, telephone calls, and other intercepted forms of communication. Its secure communications mission includes military, diplomatic, and all other sensitive, confidential or secret government communications.

The NSA is all hi-tech. NSA collected intelligence from four geostationary satellites. These satellites track and monitor millions of conversations and the NSA’s banks of high speed super-computers process all these messages for certain phrases and patterns of conversations to decide if the persons at either end were worthy of further interest. The numbers these numbers frequently connected up with would then again attract attention. In this manner linkages can be made. NSA has installations in several U.S. states and from them routinely intercepts electronic data from Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, Latin America, and Asia

According to the Washington Post, “every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications. The NSA sorts a fraction of those into 70 separate databases.” Because of its listening task, NSA/CSS has been heavily involved in cryptanalytic research, continuing the work of predecessor agencies which had broken many World War II codes and ciphers. The NSA and CIA together comprise the greatest intelligence gathering effort in the world. The human and financial resources deployed are quite extraordinary.

The overall U.S. intelligence budget has been considered classified until recently. There have been numerous attempts to obtain general information about the budget without much success. But there have also been accidental disclosures; for instance, Mary Margaret Graham, a former CIA official and deputy director of national intelligence for collection in 2005, said that the annual intelligence budget was $44 billion. The USA is more determined than ever never to be caught unawares like 9/11.

It would be incorrect to compare the attack on the World Trade Center with Pearl Harbor. 9/11 was the perfect out of the blue attack on the USA. Pearl Harbor was not. Ten days before the Attack on Pearl Harbor, US Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, entered in his diary the following statement: “Roosevelt brought up the event that we are likely to be attacked perhaps next Monday, for the Japanese are notorious for making an attack without warning, and the question was what we should do. The question was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.” Clearly the US knew an attack was coming. But on December 4,1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy changed its JN-25 code and thus denied US cryptographers the fore-knowledge of where it was going to take place. Ironically it was Henry Stimson, who as Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of State from 1929-33 who had in 1929 shut down the State Department’s cryptanalytic office saying, “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.”

Gentlemen have for long reading other peoples mail from way back when. Sometimes they have not been above putting things in other peoples mail to mislead. Probably the most famous of them was Sir Francis Walsingham the principal secretary to Queen Elizabeth I of England from 20 December 1573 until his death, and is popularly remembered as her “spymaster”.

Walsingham instructed the jailor of the captive Mary, Queen of the Scots, and Elizabeth’s great rival, to open, read and pass to Mary unsealed any letters that she received, and to block any potential route for clandestine correspondence. In a successful attempt to entrap her, Walsingham arranged a single exception: a covert means for Mary’s letters to be smuggled in and out of Chartley in a beer keg. Mary was misled into thinking these secret letters were secure, while in reality they were deciphered and read by Walsingham’s agents. In July 1586, Anthony Babington wrote to Mary about an impending plot to free her and kill Elizabeth. Mary’s reply was clearly encouraging, and sanctioned Babington’s plans. Walsingham had Babington and his associates rounded up; fourteen were executed in September 1586. In October, Mary was put on trial under the Act for the Surety of the Queen’s Person in front of 36 commissioners, including Walsingham.

During the presentation of evidence against her, Mary broke down and pointed accusingly at Walsingham saying, “all of this is the work of Monsieur de Walsingham for my destruction”, to which he replied, “God is my witness that as a private person I have done nothing unworthy of an honest man, and as Secretary of State, nothing unbefitting my duty.”

Little has changed since then. To those who are tasked with defending us and our way of life are still doing what befits their duty. Sometimes they breach the law, sometimes our privacy, but in the balance that is a small price to pay for our national safety. You can sleep peacefully as long as your conversation is not peppered with words and phrases that catch the computers attentions. The Google Company’s corporate slogan “Do No Evil” has a relevance to all of us here. As long as you are not doing any you have little to worry. But if you are Big Brother is listening, more than watching.

No comments: