Imagine how life would be if someone watched every move of yours? What if some technology was right now listening in on your telephone conversations, reading your mails, accessing your personal information and basically keeping a tab on every single thing you do? What if we said there was something watching you scroll down this article? Gave you the heebie jeebies, didn't we? If you were anticipating a line here telling you to relax and this was all a joke, you are deluded — very deluded. What we just described above is alarmingly true and very much possible. And not just a plot from a wannabe Bollywood movie.
The evolution of espionage
Ever since the beginning of time, espionage has been something that regimes have been systematically abetting to achieve their ends. Back in the days it was associated with getting out secrets and mounting invasions on rivals. As civilisation progressed with time, the definitions of espionage changed. This time espionage had more long term goals like planting agents to collect state secrets of rival world powers and also of leaders from within the country.
During the cold war era, global espionage was at its peak with United States (US) and Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) constantly at each other's throat in a bid to outdo the other as a world superpower. Agents were posted in almost every corner of the world and sovereignty of all nations was violated by both super powers to keep an upper hand.
The 21st century has been dubbed on numerous occasions as the information age and subsequently information has become the most valuable resource. Information is more powerful than military strength and can control developments worldwide if exploited with precision. Apart from just military advantage, sensitive information is now used to gain leverage over political rivals both outside as well as inside the country.
Using hysteria to have their way
The fear psychosis resulting from the events following 9/11 gave Western regimes the perfect excuse to extend surveillance beyond all boundaries. The war on terror was led by the US government to give itself a license to invade the privacy of its own people. And so began an era where the state surpassed all limitations and what was only projected as mass hysteria in Hollywood thrillers, turned out to be a reality just years later.
French presidents under watch
While most powers keep an eye on their enemies, Americans are a step ahead and believe in keeping a closer watch over their friends. Recent revelations regarding National Security Agency (NSA) snooping on top French officials, including three presidents, is just another addition to the list of friends the US is spying upon on a friendly basis.
The present French President Francois Hollande and his predecessors Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac have all been under surveillance from the agency which gained notoriety after leaks by ex-Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) systems analyst Edward Snowden. While Hollande called the action unacceptable, the justice minister hinted at Assange and Snowden being given symbolic asylum in France. The incident has also raised concerns over another figure in the NSA apart from Snowden giving out these new leaks.
NSA snooping on Americans
Pandora's box of notorious American espionage in the 21st century was opened up when it was revealed that NSA was collecting telephone records of tens of millions of Americans on a daily basis. The report published a secret court order instructing telecommunication company Verizon to pass on all its data to NSA. The report was followed by revelations that the NSA had direct access to servers of nine internet platforms including Facebook, Google and Yahoo, enabling it to track online communication between users.
The leaks were attributed to Snowden and led to an uproar globally. Instead of clarifying its position on the gross violation of civil liberties of its own citizens, the US government decided to charge Snowden for theft of government property and unauthorised communication of defence information. The regime was unapologetic about its actions by which it meddled in the private lives of its own citizens.
UK agencies were checking your internet
The fiasco escalated when it was revealed that not only the NSA but spy agencies from the United Kingdom (UK) were also collecting information from the internet. Agencies in the UK were tapping into optic fibre cables that carry global communications and passing on data to NSA. This means that apart from Americans, the agencies were collaborating to snoop in on private communications of civilians worldwide.
The operation code named Tempora had been up and running for 18 months and was tracking 600 million communications per day. Later, revelations showed that NSA and British intelligence and security organisation Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) were eavesdropping on phone calls of Italians. Under fire from all these allegations, the NSA still blamed Snowden for revealing sensitive information.
Chinese networks being hacked
As soon as Snowden was in Hong Kong, he decided to lift the veil from secrets related to his hosts. He told the South China Morning Post that NSA led around 61000 hacking operations globally and many of them were in Hong Kong and China. The targets included the Chinese University, public officials and corporations. NSA was accessing lakhs of computers by hacking into the network backbones. Out of the 61000 operations, it is difficult to tell which countries might be under surveillance from NSA.
Eavesdropping on Angela Merkel
US has always been known for spying on rivals but on the October 24, 2014, Germany summoned the US ambassador after a German publication revealed that Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone conversations were being tapped by NSA. Germany having had a history of surveillance across the Nazi regime and the cold war era, is somewhat sensitive about privacy as a nation.
This incident was the hottest topic in an European Union (EU) summit with Merkel demanding an explanation and threatening that trust between allies could be undermined. While US administration did not deny bugging her phone, Obama assured Merkel that anything of this nature will not happen in the future. It was later revealed that phones of 35 world leaders were being monitored and French President Hollande expressed concern over the interception of French calls. If only he knew that he was also on the list.
EU also targeted
In the turbulent chain of events it was also revealed that EU offices were also under the watch of NSA. Files from 2010 suggest that NSA had been listening in to communications from a building in Brussels which housed the European Council. It is claimed that military and trade policies of EU were obtained to use as leverage in negotiations. This sparked off a debate about NSA violating sovereignty of other nations.
Brazilian state oil corporation also on the list
Latin American nations and primarily US allies were alarmed and furious at reports that the entire continent was being targeted by NSA under one single operation. US spies teamed up with local telecom providers in Brazil to tap into communication channels of oil firms including the state owned Petrobras. The operation run from Brasilia seized web traffic and also kept an eye on foreign visitors in Brazil along with key figures of Mexican drug wars.
While leaders of prominent US allies in the Americas were demanding explanations, more reports suggest that calls of Mexican and Brazilian presidents were continuously being intercepted. The outrage that followed led to Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff cancelling her US visit which was a strong move against such a grave breach of trust.
Spying on significant others?
Well if all the allegations about NSA spying on American nationals and world leaders were not shocking enough, this one is surely mind blowing. It was revealed by US's internal watchdog that NSA operatives abused surveillance operations to spy on their significant others. Ever since 2003, the intelligence gathering programs were being intentionally misused to get private information about their companions.
So while the American Congress are defending the surveillance programs as an important defence tool, they might have a hard time explaining why operatives were eavesdropping on their partners by using sophisticated technology.