Rerouting data to avoid prying eyes
Two investigative journalists published articles offering evidence that Echelon also had been used for industrial espionage by the US
The internet cable project that never came to be might have been one of Ireland’s best business selling points right now.
Somewhere back around 2000, a consortium proposed to run a cable from Ireland to – if I recall – France. The point was that it wasn’t going to connect at the spot where all our other eastward facing undersea internet cables connect: the UK. It would deliberately route around the UK exchange.
In part this was to increase redundancy – back-up capability just in case something catastrophic happened to the huge London exchange, one of the world’s largest. But it was also touted as a way of avoiding long-rumoured UK surveillance of call, satellite and internet traffic.
A good portion of the world’s data traffic is routed through the London exchange. London is the landing point of most of North America’s traffic heading east, and most of Europe’s heading westwards.
Yet much of the world’s data traffic channels through London regardless of where it is destined. Often internet traffic doesn’t take a direct trip because that route may be more congested. It can be more efficient and, at the light-speed of fibreoptic cables, faster for it to go halfway around the world on unexpected detours – kind of like a backpacker’s zig-zagging multiple-flight air ticket – to reach its final destination.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s the belief among many privacy advocates, civil rights campaigners and others was that a shadowy project called Echelon was in use by the US and UK (and some other ally countries) to filter data and communication traffic, searching for key words and suspicious exchanges.
The governments always denied such a system existed, but in 2000 and 2001 the European Parliament investigated it and concluded it did indeed exist.
The report determined that Echelon itself was most likely the name for the system used for sorting and filtering communication satellite signals, and that similar surveillance systems examined internet and other electronic data.
Two investigative journalists, Duncan Campbell in the UK and Nicki Hager in New Zealand, published articles offering evidence that Echelon also had been used for industrial espionage by the US, citing a number of contracts that went to US companies on the basis of apparent intercepts of communications.
All of this should have raised an international alarm, especially as the internet was growing like mad, mobile phones were the new normal for call communications, and technology for filtering and analysing large amounts of data was well into development.
Perhaps the confirmation of Echelon came at a point when people’s attention was directed elsewhere – the turn of the millennium, excitement around the business opportunities on the rapidly expanding internet, a growing world economy. For whatever reason this indication that large-scale surveillance was under way was largely ignored.
Fast forward to this month and we learn, through whistleblower Edward Snowden, of large-scale surveillance again carried out surreptitiously by the US and – seemingly on an even larger scale – the UK.
Revelations about GCHQ’s internet surveillance indicate that it has been secretly watching all the data traffic coming in and out of the UK and storing it for later perusal, creating what Observer columnist John Naughton termed “an iPlayer for the net”.
Given the UK’s central role in routing global as well as domestic data traffic, it appears that pretty much anybody, anywhere’s communications could fall into the surveillance net in this massive project.
As Naughton notes, the government excuses we are hearing from both the US and UK are Kafkaesque. They say we need to be protected from things they can’t tell us about, using systems they can’t tell us about, and have stopped incidents they can’t tell us about. All of this with (sometime) oversight from courts, governing bodies or individuals that by law cannot reveal what they know or, in many cases, even that they know anything at all.
Why anyone – why politicians or businesses or individuals – thought this type of activity would have ceased post-Echelon, or that Echelon activities would not mutate into something else along these lines, is hard to understand.
But – back to old history – I have a feeling that were Ireland to have that cable right now, circumventing the UK network exchange and that surveillance iPlayer, it might be a pretty popular bit of kit for good old economically battered Ireland Inc.