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Mar 182017

There is a media commentator (Andrew Napolitano) in the USA who has solved the mystery of who was spying on Trump during the election. Apparently it was GCHQ after being asked to by Obama. If it had remained just a commentator on Fox News which is well known for letting kooks, weirdos, and the generally insane spout all sorts of garbage, that would have been it.

But Sean Spicer then repeated the claims in a White House briefing.

And GCHQ have denied it.

But can we believe them? In this case almost certainly.

There is a very long standing convention within British intelligence agencies of neither confirming nor denying any action. Refusing to comment no matter how embarrassing is better than being caught in a lie, so the extremely unusual denial by GCHQ is believable because it is so unusual. But there’s more.

Firstly, Obama as president didn’t have the phone number of GCHQ (which is after all a British agency). A request from the president directly to GCHQ would probably be (and should be) answered with something along the lines of “Wrong number pal”. If he wanted to make a surveillance request it would go to the NSA who would then make an inter-agency request to GCHQ.

Which would of course result in a very secret paper-trail.

And if the request did make it through to GCHQ, the only surveillance data they are likely to have access to is international data (phone calls, Internet, etc) from Trump Tower to places abroad (with probably particularly good capture rates when passing through Europe). Which may well be of interest, but to actually put surveillance equipment inside Trump Tower?

That’s the job of a domestic intelligence agency, and whilst GCHQ could get involved in such an operation on foreign soil (and probably have), it is exceptionally unlikely in this case because it would put the intelligence co-operation agreements between the US and the UK at risk.

Whilst believing statements of an intelligence agency is a risky business, in this case it is probably true that GCHQ had nothing to do with any supposed surveillance of Trump Towers given the number of reasons why GCHQ wouldn’t be involved.



Jun 082013

Which is news how exactly? Spying on us is what the NSA and GCHQ are for.

Over the last day or two, we have been hearing more and more of the activities of the NSA (here) and GCHQ (here) spying on “us” (for variable definitions of that word). Specifically on a programme called PRISM which monitors Internet traffic between the US and foreign nations, but not on communications internal to the US.

Various Internet companies have denied being involved, but :-

  1. They would have to deny involvement as any arrangement between the NSA and the company is likely to be covered by heavyweight laws regarding the disclosure of information about it.
  2. It’s also worth noting that they have asked the company executives whether they are involved in PRISM, but not asked every engineer within the company; it is doubtful in the extreme that any company executive knows everything that happens within their company. And an engineer asked to plumb in a data tap under the banner of national security is not likely to talk about it to the company executive; after all the law trumps company policy.
  3. The list of companies that have been asked, and have issued denials is a list of what the general public think of as the Internet, but in fact none of the companies are tier-1 NSP; whilst lots of interesting data could be obtained from Google, any mass surveillance programme would start with the big NSPs.

What seems to have been missed is the impact of agreements such as the UKUSA agreement on signals intelligence; the NSA is “hamstrung” (in their eyes) by being forbidden by law from spying on US domestic signals, but they are not forbidden to look at signals intelligence provided by GCHQ and visa-versa. Which gives both agencies “plausible deniability” in that they can legitimately claim that they are not spying on people from their own country whilst neglecting to mention that they make use of intelligence gathered by their opposite number.

There is some puzzlement that PRISM’s annual cost is just $20 million a year; there is really a rather obvious reason for this … and it also explains why none of the tier-1 NSPs have been mentioned so far either. Perhaps PRISM is an extension of an even more secret surveillance operation. They built (and maintain) the costly infrastructure for surveillance targeting the tier-1 NSPs and extended it with PRISM. In particular, the growing use of encryption means that surveillance at the tier-1 NSPs would be getting less and less useful (although traffic analysis can tell you a lot) making the “need” for PRISM a whole lot more necessary.

As it turns out there is evidence for this hypothesis.

But Are They Doing Anything Wrong?

Undoubtedly, both the NSA and GCHQ will claim what they are doing is within the law, and in the interests of national security. They may well be right. But unless we know exactly what they are doing, it is impossible to judge if their activities are within the law or not. And just because something is legal does not necessarily make it right.

Most people would probably agree that a mass surveillance programme may be justified if the aim is to prevent terrorism, but we don’t know that their aims are limited to that. The surveillance is probably restricted to subjects of “national interest”, but who determines what is in the national interest? Just because we think it is just about terrorism, war, and espionage doesn’t mean it is so. What is to stop the political masters of the NSA or GCHQ from declaring that it is in the national interest to spy on those involved with protests against the government, or those who vote against the government, or those who talk about taxation (i.e. tax avoidance/evasion)?

Spying is a slippery slope: It was not so very long a ago that a forerunner of the NSA was shut down by the US president of the day because “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”. But intelligence is a tool that is so useful that more and more invasive intelligence methods become acceptable. It is all too easy to imagine how today’s anti-terrorist surveillance can become tomorrow’s 1984-like society.

That does not means that GCHQ should not investigate terrorism, but that it should do so in a way that we can be sure that it does not escalate into more innocent areas. Perhaps we should be allowing GCHQ to pursue surveillance, but that it should be restricted to a specified list of topics.

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