One of the themes that has emerged in the Snowden revelations is how much NSA eavesdropping appears to be motivated by commercial espionage and how little is motivated by national security concerns. Julian Assange has published an Op-Ed that explores this topic.
One of the most interesting angles of the NSA revelations of the last quarter century has been untangling the motivations for it. The US government, naturally, maintains that the eavesdropping is motivated entirely by a desire to protect the American people from threats like those posed by the Cold War and the Global War on Terror.
But other motivations have been proposed. Extensive eavesdropping does tend to make a population more cautious. That's why authoritarian states like East Germany use it. It could be used for blackmail of political figures. That, in fact, has been alleged by NSA whistleblower Russell Tice (no substantiation has been presented). And, it could be used for commercial purposes. The Europeans have alleged for decades (see here) that the US has misused its intelligence apparatus to advantage American companies.
A lot of the fury consequent from the Snowden revelations has to do with the latter.
One aspect that stands out in the documents is that, according to them, the United States does not seem to be interested only in military affairs but also in trade secrets - "oil" in Venezuela and "energy" in Mexico, according to a listing produced NSA in the first half of this year (see above).Now an article by Julian Assangein the Guardian where he takes a step forward in making explicit this topic that has been at the edges of the conversation for many decades:
Colombia was the second priority target in Latin America over the past five years - after Brazil and Mexico - in spying activity of the National Security Agency. Agency documents,
Many Latin American governments and militaries secure their secrets with cryptographic hardware. These are boxes and software that scramble messages and then unscramble them on the other end. Governments purchase them to keep their secrets secret – often at great expense to the people – because they are correctly afraid of interception of their communications.Let me be clear: we do not yet have knowledge of specific means by which the NSA may recently have advantaged certain American companies to the detriment of foreign companies. We do have the Echelon allegations, which are quite explicit, naming for example Raytheon as a beneficiary. But the US is clearly collecting information that has nothing to do with national security and does have a lot to do with commercial advantage. It is unknown whether it is presently sharing that information with American companies. But there's a huge financial motive, there's a historical method, and--with all the darkness surrounding the NSA, there's certainly an opportunity.
But the companies who sell these expensive devices enjoy close ties with the US intelligence community. Their CEOs and senior employees are often mathematicians and engineers from the NSA capitalising on the inventions they created for the surveillance state. Their devices are often deliberately broken: broken with a purpose. It doesn't matter who is using them or how they are used – US agencies can still unscramble the signal and read the messages.
These devices are sold to Latin American and other countries as a way to protect their secrets but they are really a way of stealing secrets.
Meanwhile, the United States is accelerating the next great arms race. The discoveries of the Stuxnet virus – and then the Duqu and Flame viruses – herald a new era of highly complex weaponised software made by powerful states to attack weaker states.
Assange is careful to note that the US is not the only country that may be engaged in this. And since the Chinese currently have the fastest machine capable of decryption, the US could easily become the target of commercial espionage ala Echelon. It's in the interests of everyone to end the arms race--especially when it has to do with viruses-- and restore some privacy to communication.