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Mission almost impossible: keeping a step ahead of prying 'Five Eyes'

By now it should be apparent that if you use the internet your activities are being monitored and stored by one of the intelligence agencies in the "Five Eyes" nations, of which Australia is a member.

Whether there are enough spooks sitting behind desks, looking at the information available to them, is another question.

The latest revelations to come out of the US National Security Agency's mass global surveillance programs on Tuesday, thanks to leaked documents from former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, are that the spy agency is harvesting hundreds of millions of contact lists from personal email and instant messaging accounts around the world. If you use Facebook, Yahoo!, Hotmail or Gmail, it's likely the agency knows who you are and who you have contacted.

Australia has been linked to helping its US counterpart in the collection of the address book information.

The revelations are not surprising given that we already know intelligence agencies have agreements in place to tap many of the world's undersea cables. In late August, for example, Fairfax Media revealed that Australia's Defence Signals Directorate was in a partnership with British, American and Singaporean intelligence agencies to tap undersea fibre-optic telecommunications cables that link Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Telstra was also revealed in July to have agreed more than a decade ago to store huge volumes of electronic communications it carried between Asia and America for potential surveillance by US intelligence agencies.

Once an agency has access to the fibre-optic telecommunications cables that connect Australia to the US, it's all over; they can do almost anything they want with the data as long as they have large enough data repositories. And even if the data is encrypted, it has been revealed that intelligence agencies have access to another program, codenamed Bullrun, that has been used to secretly descramble high-level internet encryption systems globally.

In early July, it was also revealed by Fairfax that the US-Australian Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap near Alice Springs and three Defence Signals Directorate facilities – the Shoal Bay Receiving Station near Darwin, the Australian Defence Satellite Communications Facility at Geraldton and the naval communications station HMAS Harman outside Canberra – were among contributors to another NSA collection program, codenamed XKeyscore. It reportedly processes all signals before they are shunted off to various "production lines" that deal with specific issues and the exploitation of different data types (voice, video, call records and internet records) for analysis.

Another program, PRISM, was revealed to collect stored internet communications based on demands made to internet companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo!, Facebook, Google, Apple and Dropbox.

Other programs are likely to surface too, once journalists search more documents given to them by Snowden. But whether the average punter will change their internet habits remains to be seen.

It appears only government agencies that might have something to hide will take action. For others, it remains quite the task to stop using services such as Google or Facebook.

Some countries are going to extra lengths to avoid the snooping. Brazil this week confirmed it would set-up its own in-house email system, while the Indian High Commission in London has already reverted to using typewriters to compose sensitive documents following the NSA spying scandal.

"Top secret cables are now written on typewriters which cannot be tracked," Jaimini Bhagwati, the Indian High Commissioner to Britain, recently told The Times of India.

Many internet giants are beginning to change the way they deliver their websites to consumers, enabling encryption. Following Tuesday's revelations, one such giant, Yahoo, said it would enable encryption by default for webmail users. It's unknown whether the NSA will be able to bypass this, but given revelations so far, it's very likely.

 

10 comments

  • Life's no picnic for spies. Checking out people' emails, and going through their rubbish, only to discover they have empied the kitty litter into the bin. You never get to see this sort of gettin' down and dirty on the James Bond movies.

    Commenter
    Anne Gwish
    Location
    you know where
    Date and time
    October 16, 2013, 8:39AM
    • The SMH could help by introducing a HTTPS version, making it harder for third parties to keep records of visitor's reading preferences and commenting history, at least as long as Fairfax isn't forced at some stage to collude with spying agencies through a PRISM-like system.

      Attempting to access SMH and The Age via HTTPS currently gives a 'service unavailable' error.

      Commenter
      kit
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      October 16, 2013, 8:46AM
      • If they did that, it would be harder for them to compile a list of readers' viewing and ad-click preferences and use that information to serve ads and make money.

        Commenter
        DM
        Date and time
        October 16, 2013, 11:28AM
      • Also it would appear that the NSA also has access to the keys for the SSL certificates
        used to authenticate https connections. This means they can at least mount
        man in the middle attacks, and also probably decode the https connections later.

        This was the issue that forced the secure mail service to shutdown.
        Also they can probably use National Security Letters to obtain the master signing
        keys from the Certification Authorities like Verisign.

        Commenter
        jluke
        Date and time
        October 16, 2013, 7:48PM
    • There is no privacy in a digital world, so don't expect it. Don't believe you are important enough to have your emails about how wasted you got on the weekend or your internet porn preferences rate with any real significance. Algorithms trawl for specific data that is prioritised and determined to a particular threat level. A critical factor against the massive amounts of information received. Ultimately the data needs to be analysed, which is a highly intensive burden on human resource. Unless you are engaging in seriously criminal activity your data will be parsed and archived, seen only by computers.

      Commenter
      Nyquist
      Date and time
      October 16, 2013, 10:23AM
      • It occurs to me that now that Apple are attaching the pictures you store with contact details in iMessage by default, that not only can the NSA hoover up contact lists, but those contact lists have "verified" photos attached. That must be handy in association with facial recognition software......

        back to the carrier pigeon I 'spose

        Commenter
        brian
        Location
        those who I don't want to know already do
        Date and time
        October 16, 2013, 10:26AM
        • Anyone remember snail mail?

          Commenter
          Smelly
          Location
          ACT
          Date and time
          October 16, 2013, 12:39PM
          • Yep, the snail made it to the French restaurant in time....

            Commenter
            Oui
            Date and time
            October 16, 2013, 6:43PM
        • What's new? Echelon was doing this twenty years ago.

          I don't really care if they find out who I am having coffee with or when or where. A certain amount of spying is necessary, the enemy has less scruples than the government.

          HOWEVER, if they compromise my not illegal commercial information, and I suffer a loss, organisation and individuals concerned should be liable to me for ten times that loss as punitive damages.

          Google 'Inventors - do not trust Intel'

          Commenter
          Stuart
          Date and time
          October 16, 2013, 1:20PM
          • Who is this supposed enemy?

            All this spying is not about protecting the people from some imagined enemy. It is about protecting the government from the people and political dissent. The establishment want to maintain the status quo.

            Commenter
            James
            Location
            Dystopia
            Date and time
            October 17, 2013, 8:13AM
        Comments are now closed
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