Revelations of Edward Snowden

Part 1: Geopolitics and Lessons to Draw

As a rule the discussions related to what has been revealed by Edward Snowden about US global electronic surveillance boil down to violations of human rights and illegal interference into the private lives of millions in different parts of the world. If it were all about it, then the White House would not set so much store by the case and raise the issue of Snowden’s extradition to the top level of interstate discussions and even go as far as to cancel summits. Barack Obama was scared enough to cancel his appearance at international forums, which was the case of the recent APEC summit, for instance. The reason for Washington’s concern is different: Snowden has revealed the extent of control exercised over countries and peoples, something that changes the very perception of the contemporary world and spurs the efforts of  humanity being “under test” to seek ways to counter such nefarious activities…

Many believe that Edward Snowden has not revealed anything not known or guessed before.  It’s the scale of snooping that strikes the imagination making even professionals gasp. The main thing is that this time it’s not conspiracy conjectures or stories concocted by marginals that hit the world’s radar screen, but rather legally effective genuine documents produced for everyone to get acquainted with.

There are many definitions for the term “geopolitics” all boiling down to the notion that it is a science related to the control over ground, sea and, nowadays, air and space. Today information and cyber space could be added to the list, which require quite a different type of control than the traditional domains. As a geopolitical domain, the information space stands out for its dual quality of being an object and a subject at the same time. To a great extent the domain is virtual, but it becomes quite a real subject when related to political subjectivity. In the XIX century – the first half of the XX century the scholars debated the relative importance of land (Halford Mackinder, the heartland theory) or sea power (Nicolas John Spykman, the conception of Rimland) for global leadership. The control over air and space started to be normally seen as crucial in the second half of the XX century. The XXI century started with the maxim defining the control over cyberspace as the key to world dominance.

The first lesson of paramount importance to be drawn as a result of Snowden’s revelations is the fact that the United States is involved in overt and covert global cyberspace surveillance to maintain its leadership and gain foreign policy advantages. It’s not only the collection of confidential information about the humanity on an unprecedented scale. The US is using cyberspace to acquire the capability to inflict serious material and military damage to a potential enemy and exert influence on other world actors.

Asked about the United States formally complaining it was a victim of cyber spying conducted by a number of states with China at the top of the list, Snowden replied quite reasonably that the United States practically hacked all messages. No matter the US propensity to differentiate things, in reality it is America that is actually spying on everyone without distinction. Suffice it to remember that Internet, a cornerstone of contemporary cyberspace, was created and funded as ARPANET project by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is part of the US Defense Department structure. Allegedly the project was “let slide” and has gradually become what it is today. There have always been doubts about its “sliding really freely”. Now it has become clear the generic umbilical cord between US security agencies and the new information space has always remained intact. Internet is the basis for World Wide Web, WWW and a lot of other communications systems.

US and UK intelligence services know how to break encryption codes that protect electronic messages and data related to banking accounts and medical records. The US National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) have got access to the most reliable data protection systems. SSL is the most widely spread one, so special attention was paid to it. It was broken by specifically a designed top secret BULLRUN program. The similar British program is called EDGEHILL. 4G wireless technology was given priority. The NSA XKeyscore is a tool that collects “nearly everything a user does on the internet”.

PRISM is a cornerstone of US global surveillance (formally launched in 2007).  Its existence was revealed by Snowden. The program went into full swing during the tenure of the incumbent president. It was nobody else, but Barack Obama, the one who gives preference to “soft and smart power” technologies of political manipulation, who saw PRISM as a “magic crystal” to reveal all the secrets in the world.

A special structure to carry out the mission – the United States Cyber Command – was established upon President Obama’s order in 2009. General Keith B. Alexander, (the head of the National Security Agency – the most secret entity of the US intelligence community) was appointed the Commander of U.S. Cyber Command. In 2010 the United States was the first country to regard cyber space as another domain adding to land, sea and airspace. In 2011 Congress approved funds for the development of Cybercom’s offensive technologies. In August 2012 it was reported for the first time that the Pentagon took practical steps to introduce them online.

The National Security Agency secretly worked to acquire the capability to crack the most widely spread encryption codes used in Internet to protect various data: from electronic messages to financial transactions. It used diversified methods to achieve the goal: from establishing so-called “back doors” and “black boxes” in popular programs to using super-computers, secret court warrants and manipulating international procedures of encryption standards. The agency spends annually over $250 million for the SIGINT Enabling Project to actively engage US and foreign IT-companies either by clandestinely exerting influence on them or openly using their commercial products to adopt them for practical purposes.

The National Security Agency is capable of intercepting around 75% of Internet traffic going through the United States. The country is an international traffic hub; the amount of traffic by far exceeds what is recognized officially. That’s the way the system functions: the NSA asks IT – companies to redirect to it the traffic flows with high probability of containing valuable intelligence data. The companies: Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google, Facebook, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple, PalTalk are to comply with the NSA requests according to the decisions handed down by the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

According to Snowden, the NSA interests go far beyond the mission of countering “unfriendly penetration” or terrorism, something the White House officials constantly talk about to justify the activities. In reality they encompass the whole range of relevant information on key issues home and abroad. In particular, this approach has been adopted by Americans recently to overcome the implications of world financial crisis at the expense of rivals and partners as well. Taking advantage of the fact it is closely acquainted with all ins and outs of the world business situation, the US has managed to keep its economy afloat and redirect the process of its deindustrialization “at the right time at the right place”, keeping one step ahead of others when it comes to making offers while competing.

The second lesson is the control over cyberspace is exercised in close alliance with the chosen countries of  the Anglo-Saxon world – Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In this case the interaction is much more extensive than with other partners, especially in the field of information exchange. This informal alliance takes advantage of the fact that English is absolutely beyond competition as the international communications language, and this advantage is used to reach geopolitical targets.

At times the informal alliance is called Anglosphere. Some people believe this union, which is kept together by common interests in the communications domain, especially Internet, will lead the way for the rest of humanity in the twenty first century. 1 Brushing up on the fascinating masterpiece of anti-utopian vision 1984 by George Orwell, this community of nations could be compared with Oceania. The coalition of Anglo-Saxon nations is based on the interoperability of their armed forces. The idea to develop close military cooperation belongs to generals Dwight Eisenhower and Bernard Montgomery. The level of interoperability is even higher than in NATO. Cyberspace is recognized as another domain of combat operations.

According to Snowden, the states allied with the United States, like Denmark, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Spain and Italy, have agreements with Washington on sharing the communications data. Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are the most trusted nations for the United States. Such large countries as Germany and France enjoy the third position in the list of trusted nations when it comes to SIGINT. Probably the United States has less confidence in them and harbors no wish to share the gains.

The international reaction to Snowden’s revelations brought to the surface the special relationship between English speaking Anglo-Saxon countries. Great Britain, Canada and Australia are the main participants and beneficiaries of PRISM and other affiliated programs. These are the states where Snowden is most strongly condemned as a “traitor”. In London it went as far as a team of special services agents breaking into the Guardian office and senselessly destroying the equipment to take revenge for making public what Snowden had said. Before the raid the Guardian published his revelations about Great Britain and the United States snooping together during the G20 London summit in 2009. Top level foreign politicians and officials had their messages intercepted and phone calls tapped during the event. The operation was carried out by Britain’s electronic eavesdropping agency (GCHQ) and the US National Security Agency. It also surfaced that Great Britain has a large surveillance station in the Middle East destined to intercept phone calls, electronic messages and Internet traffic. The UK intelligence agencies tap undersea fiber optic telecommunications cables going across the region. The information is shared with US partners. The program’s estimated cost is one billion pounds.

•  Part 2 to follow.

  1. James C. Bennett, The Anglosphere Challenge: Why the English-Speaking Nations Will Lead the Way in the Twenty-First Century (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004). []

Dmitry is the Russian political analyst specializing on the Middle East and international security issues. He is the permanent columnist for Strategic Culture Foundation. He can be contacted at: editorial@strategic-culture.org. Read other articles by Dmitry, or visit Dmitry's website.