NSA Surveillance: From Merkel’s Phone to Middle East Chaos

“Spying is a like a game of chess: Sometimes you have to withdraw, sometimes you have to sacrifice one of your pieces to win – preferably a knight rather than a king or queen.” – John Rhys-Davies Spying is an old story and is well documented in history[1]. From Pharaoh Ramses to Chinese Sun Tzu, information gathering, deception, spying, and surveillance were important part of any civilization. Today, we live in a world full of information; even our digital traces are creating gazillion pieces of information and forming part of what is called “Big Data”. In this century, who controls information, controls everything and that’s why digital data might be the new oil which will shape world politics, economics and culture. I believe that massive change is going to happen in this century and there are countries that will vanish from our map.

There’s something hidden and Merkel’s phone is the key

The latest NSA surveillance and spying revelation by Edward Snowden sparked legal and political controversy[2] all over the world. Even The European Parliament has voted to suspend[3] the sharing of financial data with the US due to latest leaked documents. In addition to spying on European leaders[4], the US also snooped communications from Latin America[5], especially Brazil and Mexico[6]. They even spied on Mexican president’s email[7]. When the spying scandal hits US European allies, one of NSA biggest defenders in Congress announced that she opposed these spying activities and issued[8] the following: “With respect to NSA collection of intelligence on leaders of U.S. allies—including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany—let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed.” “Unless the United States is engaged in hostilities against a country or there is an emergency need for this type of surveillance, I do not believe the United States should be collecting phone calls or emails of friendly presidents and prime ministers”. On a phone call between Merkel and Obama[9], the later assured Merkel that the United States is not monitoring her communications. Amid this tension, the US Senate’s intelligence committee announced a major review of the country’s surveillance operations. Director of national intelligence James Clapper and NSA director Keith Alexander were due to testify at an open hearing of the House intelligence committee amid growing signs of a split between the intelligence community and the Obama administration[10]. Indeed, there is something hidden in this propaganda and hysteria related to NSA surveillance and espionage. Espionage is not something new; every empire practiced these types of activities. As long as information gathering is important in intelligence and decision making, there will be always espionage and spying.  I understand that US is violating privacy of many people on earth but I should also note that there are things that won’t appear in media. It’s the hidden part of intelligence and counterintelligence. The Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND)[11] did the same thing and it is also partner of the NSA since the end of the Cold War. Evidence that this hysteria hide something else is the insecure phone[12] of the Chancellor Merkel. A report in Der Spiegel said Merkel’s mobile number had been listed by the NSA’s Special Collection Service since 2002 and may have been monitored for more than 10 years[13]. It looks like her phone was put on “NSA list” long before she become German Chancellor. Once she became famous politician, her phone enters the list. It looked like the “insecure” phone which got all this hype is the old phone of Merkel used to conduct non-classified discussions such as communications and business for her political party. I believe that Merkel is not using this phone to conduct any classified business for German government. When I searched for information related to security of German government phones, I got this report by Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung[14] stated that the manufacturer of “the real secure” Merkel’s phone told them that her phone is secured with complex encryption. The security system implemented by this company, Secusmart[15], is encrypted with AES 128-bit encryption enables 340 sextillion different keys, a 340 with 36 zeros. “Even with specialized machines you would need the current state of the art theory 149 trillion years to crack this code,” says one source from the company. Looking at the website of the manufacturer, you can find that the encryption solution costs about 2500 euros per handset and based on special software and dedicated encryption chip. As I mentioned before, NSA spying activities is not new, they even spied on UN diplomats during Bush administration before invading Iraq[16]. Not only the NSA, GCHQ, the leading UK spy agency, is doing the same thing all over the world[17] and might be spying on European leaders as well[18]. According to the Guardian, Britain’s spy agency GCHQ has secretly gained access to the network of cables[19] which carry the world’s phone calls and internet traffic and has started to process vast streams of sensitive personal information which it is sharing with its American partner, the National Security Agency. Another article from WSJ proves[20] that NSA activities were not outside the norm, it’s the norm and even intelligence data are coming from European partners. The revelations suggest a greater level of European involvement in global surveillance, in conjunction at times with the NSA. The disclosures also put European leaders who loudly protested reports of the NSA’s spying in a difficult spot, showing how their spy agencies aided the Americans. US officials said the data was provided to the NSA under long-standing intelligence sharing arrangements with European allies. Why Germany is making much hype on Merkel’s phone and neglects[21] everything else in this surveillance scandal? May be Germany wants more from UKUSA agreement[22], Echelon[23], or Five Eyes programs?  May be it’s the time for Germany to play bigger role in Europe[24]. I believe that the world is changing[25] around the US and there will be new players with new political and economic agendas. US might be playing monopoly game and Russia with its allies is playing Chess all over the world. China, as the biggest buyer of Middle East oil, might be concerned for replacing the US influence in the region as the US started to get out of Middle East[26] and pivot to Asia. Consequently, the German Der Spiegel issued a call for China to “take on responsibility as a world power” in the Middle East”. A century ago, Germany stood where China is now as an emerging military and economic power and this might be the chance to cooperate together. Seven years ago, American journalist and policy thinker Robert D. Kaplan predicted that the US would eventually turn its attention from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific Region[27]. Indeed, it became reality as the US reached Japan for drone agreement[28]. In this context, US even distances itself from Egypt, which was once a central pillar of US foreign policy in Middle East. There is also hard evidence why chaos and uncertainty are on the rise in Middle East. The region was strategic area for the US since WWII because of oil. Paradoxically, the US will be the next Saudi Arabia and will be the world’s biggest oil producer in just few years according to the International Energy Agency[29]. In addition to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the US will distance itself from the entire Middle East and strengthen its relation with Iran because it has more stability and power than Arab countries. In addition, Iran is an important pivot to Asia. On the other side, it looks like Germany, Russia and China will play the Chessboard and pivot to Middle East and Africa. Consequently, we might witness a new Cold War in Middle East. But how could they deal with the growing problems created by the US in the region?

Middle East Chaos and Egypt “OKAL” encryption

On the other side of the world, there is the Middle East that lives in darkness and illusions. In Tuesday, the Egyptian newspaper, Alwatan published an article[30] quoted Egyptian security and intelligence experts to comment on the NSA surveillance. The report shocked many people as the intelligence experts told the newspaper that: “Egypt is using an encryption system called [OKAL] which is impossible to be cracked.” “OKAL” means nothing but a person name. What is the relation between person name and an encryption system? I really don’t know. Another ex-intelligence officer said “America is wondering why our secret documents were not revealed by Wikileaks” because we use very complex encryption system, the officer added..! May be those officers don’t know that Wikileaks published US diplomatic cables not secret government documents from other countries. May be they don’t know that encryption systems implemented in their government communication infrastructure are designed and manufactured in the west! The Egyptian minister of ICT also stated[31] that “our communications are safe from NSA”. May be our official don’t know that NSA has recorded about 1.9 billion phone calls in Egypt only. In addition, Egypt placed at number 7 in NSA surveillance program[32] among top targets such as Saudi Arabia, which placed at number 5 with 7.8 billion calls! When it comes to information gathering, we better need to review the NSA Boundless Informant[33] program, which collected 7.6 billion pieces of intelligence from Egypt computer networks.

Throughout history, Arabs have had difficulties in distinguishing reality from illusion. Reality is what happens, whereas illusion is what we would like to happen. Due to many reasons, Arabs didn’t invest in their tools that might turn illusion to dreams then into reality. Instead, they kept living in illusion and wishful thinking, especially when they transform the illusion into speech or oratory. In this case, they believed that illusion turned to reality. Accordingly, their lack of knowledge and experience, even in reading their own history, was exploited by more knowledgeable nations to expand their colonial hegemony. Substantially, it’s a war between illusion and reality. “We should be prepared to the chaotic techno wars of the future or we will be out of history and geography”

[1] For more details on this topic, Read Terry Crowdy The Enemy Within: A History of Espionage Oxford ; New York

[2] http://news.cnet.com/8301-1009_3-57608414-83/france-wants-answers-from-us-over-shocking-nsa-snooping/

[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-24652419

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/23/us-monitored-angela-merkel-german

[5] http://oglobo.globo.com/mundo/espionagem-dos-eua-se-espalhou-pela-america-latina-8966619

[6] http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/nsa-hacked-email-account-of-mexican-president-a-928817.html

[7] http://news.techworld.com/applications/3474600/mexico-condemns-nsas-alleged-hacking-of-presidents-email/

[8] http://www.feinstein.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/press-releases?ID=61f9511e-5d1a-4bb8-92ff-a7eaa5becac0

[9] http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/merkel-calls-obama-over-suspicions-us-tapped-her-mobile-phone-a-929642.html

[10] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/29/nsa-surveillance-review-intelligence-chiefs-testify

[11] http://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article120870362/BND-Chef-will-Nachrichtendienst-verschlanken.html

[12] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/26/nsa-surveillance-brazil-germany-un-resolution

[13] http://rt.com/news/obama-nsa-spying-merkel-808/

[14] http://www.faz.net/aktuell/wirtschaft/wirtschaftspolitik/merkels-handys-hersteller-das-echte-kanzler-phone-ist-sicher-12634200.html

[15] https://www.secusmart.com

[16] http://fair.org/media-beat-column/nsa-spied-on-u-n-diplomats-in-push-for-invasion-of-iraq/

[17] http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2013/jun/16/gchq-intercepted-communications-g20-summits

[18] http://rt.com/news/nsa-italy-spy-uk-673/

[19] http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2013/jun/21/gchq-cables-secret-world-communications-nsa

[20] http://stream.wsj.com/story/latest-headlines/SS-2-63399/SS-2-367591/

[21] http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/berlin-profits-from-us-spying-program-and-is-planning-its-own-a-906129.html

[22] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UKUSA_Agreement

[23] http://www.duncancampbell.org/menu/surveillance/echelon/EPIC_report.pdf

[24] http://www.economywatch.com/news/germany-internet-nsa-spying.28-10.html

[25] http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-brics-independent-internet-in-defiance-of-the-us-centric-internet

[26] http://www.forbes.com/sites/melikkaylan/2013/10/29/the-president-understands-its-time-to-get-out-of-the-middle-east-altogether/

[27] http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/americas-pacific-logic

[28] http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-10-03/world/42632036_1_chinese-ships-drones-south-china-sea

[29] http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/English.pdf

[30] http://www.elwatannews.com/news/details/347323

[31] http://www.almasryalyoum.com/node/2246946

[32] http://cryptome.org/2013/10/nsa-125b-calls.htm

[33] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/08/nsa-boundless-informant-global-datamining