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Lessons for India from the US cyber espionage saga

November 19, 2013 14:11 IST

Edward Snowden

Today, the biggest challenge for any state is to evolve indigenous hardware options. It is important for the states like Germany, India etc to increase their stakes in the global IT setup and this could allow them to control the US domination, says Ajey Lele.

It is startling that some people are surprised about the recent US spying episode! There has been emotional response from Germany to news about Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone being tapped. It has been argued that such things are not done amongst friends!

The Germans and many others look too naive in their thinking. What on earth made them think that the US could be a ‘friend’ to anyone in first place? The reality is that, “in politics, there are no permanent friends or enemies and what is permanent, are the interests” and the US exactly knows this.

In the 21st century and the era of globalisation, is the narrative of so called unadulterated friendship amongst the states a valid concept? Can a superpower actually afford be to friends with some other state? When it is known for centuries that everything is fair in love and war, is it correct to expect that having friendly relationship would amount to ‘pious’  behaviour from the ‘friend’?

Now, since the Edward Snowden episode and expose of the US activities in regards to espionage has become bit old and also some time has elapsed after Brazil and Germany getting ‘shocked’ about the behaviour of the ‘friend’, the time has come to put this issue in a contemporary context.  

Espionage is about secretly collecting information concerning another government or a business competitor. Espionage is not a new notion, it has been happening since the commencement of documentation of history. There have been various evidences from the eras of World War I and II about the activities involving surveillance.

The most famous World War I story is in fact about the Germany agent Mara Hari who tried obtaining information from the French officials. The only things that have changed over the years are the methods of gathering information.

The US administration has been caught off-guard by the entire Snowden episode. Their response has been mostly been brazen. Only some form of the acceptance of guilt becomes obvious from the statement of US Secretary of State John Kerry when he conceded that some US data surveillance has gone "too far".

Hypocrisy and espionage have a direct relation. In general, doing espionage is not an issue however; getting caught becomes a matter of concern!

Snowden revelations would be mentioned as a ‘defining moment’ when the history of espionage of the 21st century would be written however, it cannot be a game changer. Interestingly, the debate after the Snowden incident has been taken over by the modern day intolerant and impatient cyber community. They are debating on issues like cyber security, cyber rights, cyber ethics, internet rights and legality issues. It is important to appreciate that cyber was only the medium and what is important is the espionage issue. It was Mara Hari then and cyber today.

The good part about the Snowden episode is that at least temporarily, the US activity of using cyber as medium could come under check. Few of their so called friends would put pressure on them and could manage some commitments from them. It has been reported that Germany and the US are to strike a two-way deal not to spy on each other in the wake of the diplomatic furore and it may take another one year to finalise this deal.

In general, the US could also take some measures to mollify the states and may take some actions essentially to offer the ‘friends’ a political face-saver in their country. Otherwise, the US surveillance is likely to continue. Unfortunately, the rest of the word has no prefect technological means available to check them.

In regards to intelligence gathering, the US may have two basic requirements one, against the known enemies of the US: the global terror network etc and the states like Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela. Two, the states with strong national and economic power and showing increasing foreign policy assertiveness like Germany, France, China, Brazil and India. It is but obvious that the US would spy on these states (at the minimum). Now, the challenge for the rest of the world is to ensure that these spying activities are curtailed. However, would this be feasible?  

Modern day information technology and communication technologies offer significant advantages in regards to intelligence gathering. The biggest advantage this technology offers is the speed, reach and the volume of information it can acquire. Information technology tools also allow almost real-time assessment of this information and project various policy options.

The US has an asymmetric advantage in regards to possession of these technologies. They have already established major cyber architecture for intelligence gathering. Now, just because few states and few cyber-cry babies are raising objections the US is unlikely to deviate from their activities. The basic character of their ITC based intelligence gathering mechanism appears to be to exploit the ‘global cyber weaknesses’.   

Over the years like slow poison, cyber technology has got ‘proliferated’ globally. Presently, almost every global activity has developed cyber dependence and this is what is being systematically exploited by the US. Today, all the major cyber industry giants are US based. They mostly control the cyber hardware. Today, the core ICT organisations (at a global level) are under the US control and are found influencing the private cyber industries like Google, Facebook etc for data sharing.

To undo the US influence it is important to have a strong cyber legal architecture. Also, various technical means are required to be identified to limit the sensitive data theft by the US or any other agencies. Today, the biggest challenge for any state is to evolve indigenous hardware options. It is important for the states like Germany, India etc to increase their stakes in the global IT setup and this could allow them to control the US domination.

On the other hand, present day global population has become obsessively cyber expressive and almost every activity in their life (almost in real time) finds a place in the cyber world. Intelligence agencies (not only from the US but from other states too) are taking full advantage of this freely shared information. It is important that a net-citizen also thinks before sharing any information to the cyber-world.        

Finally, it is important not to only focus on cyber espionage issue alone but to widen the debate on espionage itself. There is a need to identify that, what other methods the US is using to espionage on their ‘friends’? What mechanisms they have established for the collection of tactical and strategic intelligence based on non-cyber tools? There are many vital questions (including industrial espionage) which are never been asked in respect of the US intelligence gathering activities and for what purpose this intelligence is getting used. Now, there is an opportunity.         

Ajey Lele is a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi and the views expressed are personal.

Ajey Lele