GCHQ & NSA: The World is Our Haystack

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GCHQ (Courtesy: GCHQ)

By Ann-Marie de Veer
Friday 11 January 2014

As revelations continue to emerge in the media from the files sourced by whistleblower Edward Snowden, the pervasive reach of the NSA and GCHQ demonstrates their omnipresence in the worlds' haystack of electronic data. The latest trove of documents viewed by der Spiegel includes the private phone numbers of the German government network in Berlin and its embassies, the European Union's competition commissioner Joaquin Almunia who is the current European Commission Vice President and United Nations agencies like the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR).

In a Guardian post the targets also included the United Nations Development Programme, UNICEF and Médecins du Monde. The documents do not reveal how these organisations represent a terrorist, cyber attack or nuclear proliferation threat given that their raison d'être is of Fighting Poverty, promoting Child Survival and to provide Emergency and Long-term Medical Care to Vulnerable Populations respectively.

Other targets caught up GCHQ's trawl through communications passing between Europe and Africa included Nicolas Imboden, from the non-profit Ideas Centre in Geneva, and Solomon Asamoah, deputy head of the Africa Finance Corporation.

When questioned on the efficacy of trawling through the communications of this latest group of targets, the NSA responded:

"As we have previously said, we do not use our foreign intelligence capabilities to steal the trade secrets of foreign companies on behalf of – or give intelligence we collect to – US companies to enhance their international competitiveness or increase their bottom line. The United States collects foreign intelligence just as many other governments do."
"The intelligence community's efforts to understand economic systems and policies, and monitor anomalous economic activities, are critical to providing policymakers with the information they need to make informed decisions that are in the best interest of our national security. As the administration also announced several months ago, the US government is undertaking a review of our activities around the world – looking at, among other issues, how we co-ordinate with our closest allies and partners."

While GCHQ, in a rare deviation from its boilerplate response of:

"It is a longstanding policy that we do not comment on intelligence matters. Furthermore, all of GCHQ’s work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the Secretary of State, the Interception and Intelligence Services Commissioners and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. All our operational processes rigorously support this position."

On this occasion it felt comfortable in issuing the following statement:

"One of the purposes for which GCHQ may be authorised to intercept communications is where it is necessary for the purpose of safeguarding the economic well-being of the UK."

For once, GCHQ felt secure in the knowledge that its remit as defined in the Intelligence Services Act 1994 code of practice does include the monitoring and interception of economic data for national security purposes.

What is clear from these documents is that the scope of the agencies operations is vast. The overwhelming majority of these targets are not plotting to do any harm, on the contrary, they include allied foreign governments, NGOs, international bodies and even some individuals whose objectives and activities the UK and US governments actively support. The notion that these targets represent any form of threat is spurious, misleading and a willful misuse of limited resources and capabilities.

The NSA and GCHQ's modus operandi is not one of should we, or we need to, but we can and we will.

A few bales of hay is not enough, they want the whole haystack.