Opinion Op Ed 07 Aug 2018 Digital snooping: &l ...
The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy

Digital snooping: ‘Gentlemen don’t read other people’s mail!’

Published Aug 7, 2018, 7:42 am IST
Updated Aug 7, 2018, 7:42 am IST
The Google company’s corporate slogan “Do No Evil” has a relevance to all of us here.
You can sleep peacefully as long as your conversation is not peppered with words and phrases that catch the computer’s attention.
 You can sleep peacefully as long as your conversation is not peppered with words and phrases that catch the computer’s attention.

The tracking down of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden to his Abottabad hideout was probably one of the great detective stories of the age, Most of the credit for this must go to America’s secretive intelligence-gathering outfit, the National Security Agency. The NSA’s eavesdropping mission includes radio broadcasting, both from various organisations and individuals, the Internet, telephone calls and other intercepted forms of communication. Its secure communications mission covers military, diplomatic and all other sensitive, confidential or secret government communications.

The NSA is all hi-tech. It collects data from four geostationary satellites which track and monitor millions of conversations, after which the NSA’s banks of high-speed supercomputers 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 which these numbers frequently connected up with would then again attract attention. In this manner, linkages can be made. The NSA has installations in several US 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 Second World War codes and ciphers. The NSA and the CIA together comprise the greatest intelligence-gathering effort in the world. The human and financial resources deployed are quite extraordinary.

The overall US 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 US 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 Centre with Pearl Harbour in 1941. 9/11 was the perfect out-of-the-blue attack on the United States. Pearl Harbour was not. Ten days before the Pearl Harbour attack, then 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 manoeuvre them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.”

Clearly, the US knew that an attack was coming. It may not be entirely fortuitous that the three aircraft-carriers assigned to the Pacific Fleet — USS Saratoga, USS Lexington and USS Enterprise — had been dispatched on missions that took them away from Pearl Harbour that fateful Sunday. Be that as may be, on December 4, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy changed its JN-25 code and thus denied US cryptographers the foreknowledge of where it was going to take place, possibly explaining why eight of the nine  battleships assigned to the US Pacific Fleet were still in Pearl Harbour.

Ironically it was Henry Stimson, who as Herbert Hoover’s secretary of state from 1929 to 1933, had in 1929 shut down the state department’s cryptanalytic office, saying: “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail”.

Gentlemen have for long been reading other people’s mail, from way back. Sometimes they have not been above putting things in other people’s mail as well, in order to mislead. Probably the most famous of them was Sir Francis Walsingham, the principal secretary to Queen Elizabeth I of England from December 20, 1573 until his death, who is popularly remembered as her “spymaster”. Walsingham is to Britain’s MI5 what John Sleeman of Thugee fame is to our Intelligence Bureau.

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; 14 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. 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 still 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 computer’s attention. The Google company’s corporate slogan “Do No Evil” has a relevance to all of us here. As long as you are not doing anything wromg, you have little to worry. But if you are, Big Brother is watching, and listening.