Surveillance: Big Brother is Listening

Published: August 2, 2013 - 14:13

The tracking down of Osama bin Laden to his hideout was one of the great detective stories of our age. The credit for this must go to the secretive US intelligence outfit — the National Security Agency (NSA)
Mohan Guruswamy Delhi 

In June 2013, the number of active mobile phones the world over exceeded six billion, which means that six out of every seven people in the world had a mobile phone. Of these, India and China alone accounted for about two billion. The US followed with 327 million and a dysfunctional country such as Pakistan had 125 million. Even in countries with little semblance of a government or a state, such as Somalia, Afghanistan, Mali or Libya, there are functioning mobile phone networks.

As of June 30, 2012, there were 2.4 billion Internet users the world over. Of these, 44.8 per cent were in Asia, 21.5 per cent in Europe and 11.4 per cent in all of North America. India was one of the last countries operating a telegraph service and, as of this month, even that is now in the past. Literally, it’s all up in the air now.

Quite clearly, we are talking and communicating more with each other. Billions of messages flit through the ether each day. That’s why this is called the communications era. People are constantly communicating.

This has led to new forms of business and new forms of doing business. Any kind of business. With that small gizmo in your hand, that often nowadays packs more power than a bank of PCs half a dozen years ago, you can buy an airline ticket in another continent or send flowers to a special friend in yet another one. There can be other less benign uses also. A terrorist can detonate a secreted bomb in a distant country with a mobile phone call. Criminals can orchestrate their activities without moving from their lairs.

This new technology has posed many new challenges to the modern State, and, like before, every modern State has to defend itself against some enemy or the other. But states with the technical means and the financial resources have, as always, risen to the challenges, and we see this in action in a variety of ways. It also poses new challenges to the law-abiding citizen’s right to privacy.

Let’s discuss this a bit. In the pre-mobile phone era, and that was not very long ago, the State did always try to glean information germane to the well-being of its citizenry through well-known conventional methods. They were easier days, even into the mid- and late,90s. The number of people of interest were few and they were not so easily concealed. Means of communication were relatively easy to police and there were far fewer of them available. Mobile telephony has changed all that. Cellular phones are now easily available. They no longer tether a person to a place and identity. Mobile telephony gives people reach, spread, speed and, above all, a greater anonymity.

However, since data exchanged on cellular and Internet networks fly through the ether and not as pulses racing through copper wires, they are easier to net by electronic interception. These nets catch them in huge numbers. Unlike before, when the signals to be intercepted and deciphered were a few, now you have millions to sort out and analyze for content and patterns. This is where the supercomputers come in. The messages that are netted every moment are run through sieves of sophisticated and complex computer programmes that can simultaneously decode, detect and unravel, and by further analyzing the incoming and outgoing patterns of calls and data transfers for the sending and receiving terminals or phones, can, with a fair probability of accuracy, tell the agency seeking information about what is going on and who is up to what.

The problem is that since this information also goes through the mobile phone network and Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and the data actually gets decoded from electronic blips into voice and digital data, private players too gain access to such information. A few years ago we had the case of the infamous Amar Singh CDs which titillated so many with the graphic content and lowbrow conversations featuring the likes of Anil Ambani, Jayaprada, Bipasha Basu and some others. Then we had the episode of the Radia tapes where we were privy to the machinations of Tata’s corporate lobbyist in the national capital fixing policy, positioning ministers and string-pulling media stars.

The CIA had a clutch of phone numbers that were used sometime or the other by Al Qaeda couriers. For most of the time these numbers would remain shut. They would come to life very briefly to pass very terse messages

But, more usefully than this, a mobile phone, by nature of its technology, is also a personalised GPS indicator. It tells them where that phone is at any instant it is on. The Al Qaeda terrorist and US citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, was blasted by a Hellfire missile fired from a CIA Predator drone flying over Yemen with the coordinates provided by Awlaki’s mobile phone. In another place and time, the satellite phone used by the Chechen renegade, Major General Dzokhar Dudayev, gave the Russian Air Force the beacon it was looking for. A Russian missile hit Dudayev with precision accuracy.

Since a mobile phone is usually with you it tells the network (and other interested parties) where you are or were, and even where you are headed. If you are on a certain street, since it reveals where exactly you are and the direction of your movement, it can tell you where the next pizza place is or where and what is on sale. This is also breach of privacy, but often useful to you. But if you are up to no good, then a switched-on mobile phone is a certain giveaway. That’s what gave away Osama bin Laden in the end. A momentary indiscretion by a trusted courier and bodyguard and a name gleaned from a long-ago water-boarding session was all it took. 

In 2002, interrogators had heard uncorroborated claims about an Al Qaeda courier with the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti (sometimes referred to as Sheikh Abu Ahmed from Kuwait). One of those claims came from Mohammed al-Qahtani, a detainee interrogated for 48 days continuously between November 23, 2002, and January 11, 2003, in a secret rendition camp in Poland. At some point during this period, al-Qahtani told interrogators about a man known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti who was part of the inner circle of Al Qaeda.

In 2004, a prisoner named Hassan Gul claimed that al-Kuwaiti was close to bin Laden as well as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Mohammed’s successor, Abu Faraj al-Libbi. Gul revealed that al-Kuwaiti had not been seen in some time, which led US officials to suspect he was travelling with bin Laden. In 2007, officials learned al-Kuwaiti’s real name was Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed; he was a Pathan from Pakistan’s Swat Valley.

The CIA had a clutch of phone numbers that were used sometime or the other by Al Qaeda couriers. For most of the time these numbers would remain shut. They would come to life very briefly to pass very terse messages or have very short conversations. In one of these conversations, al-Kuwaiti tells his friend that he is now working with the people he was with before. This was enough of a break for the CIA to put him under full-time physical surveillance. A satellite picked him up in Karachi and tracked him. This led to him and his brother, Abrar, with their families, to that now very famous house in Abottabad.

The tracking down of Osama bin Laden to his hideout was probably one of the great detective stories of our age. Most of the credit for this must go to the secretive US intelligence-gathering organization, the National Security Agency (NSA). The NSA’s eavesdropping mission includes radio broadcasting, both from various organizations and individuals, the Internet, telephone calls and other intercepted forms of communication. Its secure communications mission includes military, diplomatic, and all other sensitive, confidential or secret government communications. The NSA is all hi-tech; it collected intelligence from four geostationary satellites which track and monitor millions of conversations.

The NSA’s banks of high-speed supercomputers process all these messages for certain phrases and patterns of conversations to decide if the persons at either end are worthy of further interest. The numbers these numbers frequently connected up with would then again attract attention. In this manner linkages can be made. NSA has installations in several US states and from them routinely intercepts electronic data from Europe, West Asia, North Africa, Latin America and Asia.

According to The Washington Post, “Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications. The NSA sorts a fraction of those into 70 separate databases.” Because of its listening task, NSA/CSS (Central Security Service) has been heavily involved in cryptanalytic research, continuing the work of predecessor agencies which had broken many World War II codes and ciphers. The NSA and CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) together comprise the biggest intelligence gathering effort in the world. The human and financial resources deployed are quite extraordinary.

Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications. The NSA sorts a fraction of those into 70 separate databases

The overall US intelligence budget has been considered classified until recently. There have been numerous attempts to obtain general information about the budget without much success. But there have also been accidental disclosures; for instance, Mary Margaret Graham, a former CIA official and deputy director of national intelligence for collection in 2005, said that the annual intelligence budget was $44 billion. The US is more determined than ever never to be caught unawares like 9/11.


It would be incorrect to compare the attack on the World Trade Centre with Pearl Harbour; 9/11 was the perfect out-of-the-blue attack on the US. Pearl Harbour was not. Ten days before the attack on Pearl Harbour, US Secretary of War Henry Stimson entered in his diary the following statement: “Roosevelt brought up the event that we are likely to be attacked perhaps next Monday, for the Japanese are notorious for making an attack without warning, and the question was what we should do. The question was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.”

Clearly, the US knew an attack was coming. But on December 4, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy changed its JN-25 code and thus denied US cryptographers the fore-knowledge of where it was going to take place. Ironically, it was Stimson, who, as Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of State from 1929-33, had in 1929 shut down the State Department’s cryptanalytic office, saying, “Gentlemen, don’t read each other’s mail.”

Indeed, ‘gentlemen’ have for long been reading other people’s mail. Sometimes, they have not been above putting things in other people’s mail to mislead. Probably the most famous of them was Sir Francis Walsingham, the principal secretary to Queen Elizabeth I of England from December 20, 1573, until his death, who is popularly remembered as her “spymaster”.

Walsingham instructed the jailor of the captive Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth’s great rival, to open, read and pass to Mary unsealed any letters that she received, and to block any potential route for clandestine correspondence. In a successful attempt to entrap her, Walsingham arranged a single exception: a covert means for Mary’s letters to be smuggled in and out of Chartley in a beer keg. Mary was misled into thinking these secret letters were secure, while in reality they were deciphered and read by Walsingham’s agents.

In July 1586, Anthony Babington wrote to Mary about an impending plot to free her and kill Elizabeth. Mary’s reply was clearly encouraging, and sanctioned Babington’s plans. Walsingham had Babington and his associates rounded up; 14 were executed in September 1586. In October, Mary was put on trial under the Act for the Surety of the Queen’s Person in front of 36 commissioners, including Walsingham.

During the presentation of evidence against her, Mary broke down and pointed accusingly at Walsingham, saying, “all of this is the work of Monsieur de Walsingham for my destruction”, to which he replied, “God is my witness that as a private person I have done nothing unworthy of an honest man, and as Secretary of State, nothing unbefitting my duty.”

Little has changed since then. Those who are tasked with defending ‘us and our way of life’ are still doing what befits their duty. Sometimes they breach the law, sometimes our privacy, but in the balance that is a small price to pay for our national safety. You can sleep peacefully as long as your conversation is not peppered with words and phrases that catch the computer’s attention. The Google company’s corporate slogan, “Do No Evil” has relevance for all of us here. As long as you are not doing any you have little to worry. But if you are, Big Brother will be listening. 


The tracking down of Osama bin Laden to his hideout was one of the great detective stories of our age. The credit for this must go to the secretive US intelligence outfit — the National Security Agency (NSA)
Mohan Guruswamy Delhi 

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This story is from print issue of HardNews