Getting in a sneak peek

After recent revelations about electronic eavesdropping, America’s director of National Intelligence James Clapper used a fascinating metaphor for that surfeit of surveillance. Anirudh Bhattacharyya writes.

columns Updated: Jun 15, 2013 02:11 IST

After recent revelations about electronic eavesdropping, America’s director of National Intelligence James Clapper used a fascinating metaphor for that surfeit of surveillance. “Think of a huge library with literally millions of volumes of books in it, an electronic library,” he urged. So the task before the cyberspooks is to ensure they know precisely which book to read. For the American books, he explained, they would “have to get permission to actually look at that.” While having played that library card, Clapper didn’t quite reveal what happens when that piece of fiction, or otherwise, comes bound between non-American covers, leaving many to wonder about the 50 shades of grey that govern such international spying.

One imaginatively named programme of the National Security Agency, Boundless Informant, for instance, throws up lovely colour-coded maps of global data collection. After the usual suspects in Iran or Pakistan, you’ll find that the NSA was tapping into almost five datasets for each Indian citizen. The bulk of your online communications flows through pipes to servers in America and there’s no stopper large enough to plug that loophole. Being the fifth-most surveilled nation, according to the global heat map, could only point to the fact that ties between the United States and India are extremely warm.

Reacting to the outrage over this bit of over Reich on the metadata menace, United States President Barack Obama used the Kardashians’ favourite four-letter word to describe it: ‘Hype’. “I think it’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 per cent security and also then have 100 per cent privacy and zero inconvenience,” he went on, though he didn’t specify exact percentages of each of those factors you are allowed to have.

Whether it’s Boundless Informant or its cousins in PRISM or BLARNEY, what we do know is that all manner of communication, whether it’s cellphone calls or social media feeds or emails or real-time voice or text chats, goes into a vast digital haystack. Perhaps the intent is to counter those like Lashkar-e-Toiba chief Hafiz Saeed from needling America online in between posting Instagrammed photographs of his lunch.

The major companies identified in those Powerpoint presentations of the covert data mining, be it Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple or Skype, have denied participation in such clandestine activity. That could well be true: Analysts have pointed out there are enough porous points that data passes through that could have been tapped into. Or, that response could be considered through the prism of a phrase used by Clapper when quizzed about having given a false answer at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. That term was “least untruthful”.

It was ironically symbolic that as news of this massive snooping was going public, the American president was having “a very constructive conversation on a whole range of strategic issues” including cybersecurity with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. China, after all, has turned the craft of policing communication into a polished art.

Brushing aside concerns of privacy advocates, the Obama administration claims it has done superbly when it comes to countering terrorism, courtesy its data dragnet.

Take, for example, the brothers Tsarnaev, the perpetrators of the Boston marathon bombings earlier this year. In 2011, Russia warned that the elder, Tamerlan, had taken a ‘radical turn’ and American authorities acted decisively, by giving him welfare benefits.

Or Army man Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 people in Fort Hood in 2009. He was described as a ‘ticking time bomb’ prior to that terrorist rampage and was also dealt with effectively — being promoted to Major.

That should be very reassuring, especially to those who believe everything they read on the Internet.

As candidate and then president, Obama did promise to keep an eye on and listen to all Americans. He kept his word. And what does he get in return? Gratitude? No! Attitude: A bunch of ingrates complaining about an intrusive State peeking on their shared images of grouchy cats.

Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years
The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Jun 14, 2013 23:03 IST