THE saga of Edward Snowden and the NSA makes one thing clear: The United States’ central role in developing the internet and hosting its most powerful players has made it the global leader in the surveillance game.
Other countries, from dictatorships to democracies, are also avid snoopers. But experts in the field say that Silicon Valley has made America a surveillance superpower, allowing its spies access to massive mountains of data being collected by the world’s leading communications, social media, and online storage companies. That’s on top of the United States’ fibre optic infrastructure — responsible for just under a third of the world’s international internet capacity, according to telecom research firm TeleGeography — which allows it to act as a global postmaster, complete with the ability to peek at a big chunk of the world’s messages in transit.
“The sheer power of the US infrastructure is that quite often, data would be routed though the US, even if it didn’t make geographical sense,” Joss Wright, a researcher with the Oxford Internet Institute, said. “The current status quo is a huge benefit to the US.”
The status quo is particularly favourable to America because online spying drills into people’s private everyday lives in a way that other, more traditional forms of espionage can’t match. So countries like Italy, where a culture of rampant wiretapping means that authorities regularly eavesdrop on private conversations, can’t match the level of detail drawn from internet searches or email traffic analysis.
“It’s as bad as reading your diary,” Wright said. Then he corrected himself: “It’s far worse than reading your diary. Because you don’t write everything in your diary.”
Although the details of how the NSA’s PRISM programme draws its data from these firms remain shrouded in secrecy, documents leaked by spy agency systems analyst Edward Snowden to The Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers said its inside track with US tech firms afforded “one of the most valuable, unique, and productive” avenues for intelligence gathering. How much cooperation America’s internet giants are giving the Government is a key unanswered question.
Whatever the case, the pool of information in American hands is vast. Washington-based Microsoft accounts for more than 90% of the world’s desktop computer operating systems, according to one industry estimate. California-based Google carries two-thirds of the world’s online search traffic, analysts say. California-based Facebook has some 900 million users — accounting for a third of the world’s estimated 2.7bn internet users.
Electronic eavesdropping is, of course, far from an exclusively American pursuit. Many other nations pry further and with less oversight.
China and Russia have long hosted intrusive surveillance regimes. Russia’s “SORM”, the Russian-language acronym for System for Operational-Investigative Activities, allows government officials to directly access nearly every internet service provider in the country. Initially set up to allow the FSB, the successor organisation to the KGB, unfettered access to Russia’s internet traffic, the scope of SORM has grown dramatically since Vladimir Putin took power in 2000 and now allows a range of law enforcement agencies monitor Russians’ messages.
In China, surveillance is “pervasive, extensive, but perhaps not as high-tech” as in the US, said Andrew Lih, a journalism professor at American University in Washington. He said major internet players such as micro- blogging service Sina, chat service QQ, or Chinese search giant Baidu were required to have staff — as many as several hundred — specially tasked with carrying out the state’s bidding, from surveillance to censorship.
What sets America apart is that it sits at the centre of gravity for much of world’s social media, communications, and online storage.
Americans’ “position in the network, the range of services that they offer globally, the size of their infrastructure, and the amount of bandwidth means that the US is in a very privileged position to survey internationally”, said Wright. “That’s particularly true when you’re talking about cloud services such as Gmail” — which had 425 million active users as of last year.
Many are trying to beat America’s tech dominance by demanding that US companies open local branches — something the Turkish government recently asked of San Francisco-based Twitter, for example — or by banning them altogether.
Governments are also racing to capture traffic as it bounces back and forth from California, importing bulk surveillance devices, loosening spy laws, and installing centralised monitoring centres to offer officials a one-stop shop for intercepted data.
“Eventually, it won’t just be Big Brother,” said Richard J Aldrich, the author of a book about Britain’s GCHQ eavesdropping agency. “There will be hundreds of little brothers.”
But the siblings have a lot of catching up to do if they want to match surveillance powers of the US, and some have turned to cyber espionage to try to even the playing field. A high-profile attack on Gmail users in 2010, for example, was blamed on Chinese hackers, while suspicion for a separate 2011 attack on various US webmail services fell on Iran.
But even in the dark arts of cyber espionage, America seems to have mastered the field. Washington is blamed for launching the world’s first infrastructure-wrecking super worm, dubbed Stuxnet, against Iran and for spreading a variety of malicious software programmes across the Middle East. One US general recently boasted of hacking his enemies in Afghanistan.
In his comments to the South China Morning Post, Snowden said Americans had broken into computer systems belonging to a prominent Chinese research university, a fibre optic cable company and Chinese telecoms providers. “We hack everyone everywhere,” Snowden said.
US officials haven’t exactly denied it. “You’re commuting to where the information is stored and extracting the information from the adversaries’ network,” ex-NSA chief Michael Hayden told Bloomberg Businessweek earlier this year. “We are the best at doing it. Period.”