The Great Game

by Andrea Monti – Initially published in Italian on Strategikon, an Italian Tech blog

On 30 May 2021, Denmark Radio (DR), the Danish public broadcaster, found out that, between 2012 and 2014, Finnish military intelligence collaborated with the US National Security Agency (NSA), allowing it to “wiretap” Danish submarine cables on which data and conversations pass to spy on European persons of interest. DR carried out the investigative report with its Swedish, Norwegian and German counterparts and the newspapers Süddeutsche Zeitung and Le Monde. The report added new details to what emerged in 2013 when Edward Snowden’s leaks gave us an idea of what was going on.

The discovery of these new details ignited protests. However, there is little of which to be surprised. The most unscrupulous initiatives against anyone mark the history of intelligence. Notwithstanding some distinctions, they are reminiscent of the American Wrestling’s “Free-for-All”, where every man is for himself, and God cares for the rest.

To give a few examples, few outside the circle of insiders will remember Crypto AG, the Swiss company whose hidden owners were the German and American secret services, which produced crypto devices sold to international diplomacy and top-level companies. The joint venture, which began in 1970, continued until 1993 when the Bundesnachrichtendienst backed out and left control to the CIA, which continued to run it until 2018. Yesterday crypto phones, today “crocodile clamps” on cables, as in the heroic days of phone phreaking. Not many people know that in 2008 the NSA spied on an ally of Israel’s calibre, documenting Tel Aviv’s involvement in the assassination of Syrian General Suleiman, or that in 2009 the United Kingdom was caught red-handed reading the emails of foreign diplomats attending the G20.

Faced, then, with pragmatically standard behaviour, it would be easy to invoke a Mozartian Così fan Tutte or, concerning Germany’s protests, a more Italic Oggi a me, domani a te [*. This is the Italian title of Sergio Leone’s Today we kill, Tomorrow we die, meaning ‘today is my turn, tomorrow yours]. It would be easy to dismiss the affair as one of the many scandals that periodically emerge regarding how the intelligence agencies of world powers protect the interests of their countries.

Instead, it would be worth asking ourselves some questions. In a sector like that of national security, dominated by machtpolitik, it is understandable that each Country does what it can to acquire a strategic advantage over anyone else, ‘friends’ included, with the only (flexible) limit of political opportunity. Therefore, it is reasonable to think that the choice of intercepting the communications of partners and allies is not taken lightly. One wonders, then, how it is possible that notwithstanding the rigorous procedures for the approval of intelligence projects, notwithstanding the supervision of independent bodies such as ad hoc tribunals and the institution of parliamentary commissions of control, every now and then, roses spring up which smell different from what the name suggests.

Shakespearean metaphor aside, one possible answer lies in the concept of plausible deniability, the bureaucratic technique that allows, as one moves down from the top to the operational base of an administration, to carry on in practice what in theory – and according to the law – one could not.

The most recent public example concerns the United Kingdom, indicted on 25 October 2021 by the European Court of Human Rights for shortcomings in its procedures for authorising mass interception. One of the reasons for the Strasbourg judges’ verdict was the lack of categories of keywords (the selectors) to select relevant communications in the form that intelligence facilities must fill to get authorisation to proceed from the Secretary of State. In other words, the Executive authorises a mass interception without going into too much detail, and the intelligence services intercept with a wide operative latitude without the Government knowing precisely what is happening. Again, this is a tried and tested technique, but it is less efficient when applied to information technology and the Internet.

The creation and management of a technological surveillance system require the involvement of many people, agencies belonging to other countries, and the inevitable interaction with private subjects (Big Tech and telecommunication operators and internet providers). All this leaves many more footprints that can be found more easily by those who know how to read them. Journalistic investigations by Hager and Campbell that revealed the existence of Echelon in 1996 were extraordinarily complex and challenging. By contrast, the Snowden, Manning and Assange cases show how (relatively) easy it has become for a whistleblower to reveal secrets that in other times would have been impossible to breach. Moreover, the citizen’s right to access public administration files became increasingly important (but still hindered). Right to access allows citizens to collaborate in the ‘bottom-up’ control of the public bodies. They can cross-reference information that, in other times, they would not have had or that would have been extremely difficult to correlate.

The veil of secrecy that envelops intelligence activities is still thick. However, the spreading of information technologies made it thinner than in the past. It is reasonable to think that the States will not stop using all the instruments at their disposal – without exception – to protect their national interests. It is equally reasonable to assume that they will evolve their strategies to counter the increased ability of the information sector and civil society to shed light on these activities. In a democratic country, it is unlikely that there will be a definitive victory for one side or the other, which, in a never-ending game, will compete for the ball and score their goal in turn. Also, for this reason, the world of intelligence is called the Great Game.

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