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NSA spying - another side of the story-- Data Privatized For Corporate Use

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* The French electronics giant, Thomson lost a contract worth 1.4 million dollars for the supply of a surveillance system to Brazil because the Americans had intercepted details of the negotiations and passed them on to the US Raytheon Corporation, which subsequently won the contract.

* The NSA intercepted phone calls between Thomson-CSF and Brazil concerning SIVAM, a $1.3 billion surveillance system for the Amazon rain forest. The contract was awarded to the US Raytheon Corporation - who announced afterwards that "the Department of Commerce worked very hard in support of U.S. industry on this project," as well they might.

Finally, according to a well-informed 1995 press report in the Baltimore Sun : "from a commercial communications satellite, NSA lifted all the faxes and phone calls between the European consortium Airbus , the Saudi national airline and the Saudi government. The agency found that Airbus agents were offering bribes to a Saudi official. It passed the information to U.S. officials pressing the bid of Boeing Co and McDonnell Douglas Corp., which triumphed last year in the $6 billion competition."

Other accounts have been published by reputable journalists and some firsthand witnesses citing frequent occasions on which the US government has utilised covertly intercepted communications for national commercial purposes. These include targeting data about the emission standards of Japanese vehicles; 1995 trade negotiations the import of Japanese luxury cars; French participation in the GATT trade negotiations in 1993; the Asian-Pacific Economic Conference (APEC), 1997.

In 1970, according to its former Executive Director, the US Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board recommended that "henceforth economic intelligence be considered a function of the national security, enjoying a priority equivalent to diplomatic, military, technological intelligence". On 5 May 1977, a meeting between NSA, CIA and the Department of Commerce authorised the creation of secret new department, the "Office of Intelligence Liaison". Its task was to handle "foreign intelligence" of interest to... the Department of Commerce.

So mass surveillance of foreigners is a very rentable business for some Americans. But an American Civil Liberties Union Report, THE SURVEILLANCE-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX: How the American Government is Conscripting Businesses and Individuals in the Construction of a Surveillance Society, published some ten years ago now (August 2004) correctly identified the obnoxious relationship of large corporations with the security agencies within the US too.

The ACLU identified the multi billion pot of money that was there for so called 'security' consultancy, and domestic or overseas surveillance in particular.

"It is not possible to determine the overall extent to which private-sector lobbying has actually driven the government's push for increased surveillance, as opposed to simply helping companies fight for pieces of a pre-determined government pie. It will be up to historians and investigative reporters to measure the role of companies pushing new software products, or seeking to develop a home- land security market for their pre-existing data stores. But in at least some cases, major new impetus for surveillance-friendly policies has clearly come from the private sector."

Thus wrote the ACLU, illustrating the point with one of the US's rare 'failed'  schemes -  the Pentagon's Total Information Awareness (TIA) program. This was proposed by a private company, the engineering services firm called Syntek whose well-connected vice president was John Poindexter.

From the start, TIA was premised on a tightly interlinked relationship between government and private-sector data companies. Poindexter explained that the goal was to mine "the transaction space" in order to find "signatures" of terrorist activity. A graphic on the TIA Web site listed the types of databases that would make up this "transaction space," including    financial,    medical, travel, "place/event entry," transportation, housing and communications all of which were to be woven together so that they could be treated "as if they were one centralized database." The data fields would be things like:

Siblings, Neighbors, Associates
Credit Card Usage History
Travel History
Library Records & Book Purchases
Driving Record
Name Social Security # Address Phone Date of Birth
Criminal Record
Music Preferences
Internet Usage Logs
Sexual Orientation

... and 'Political Activities', of course. However, the TIA was not itself secret, ran into public opposition and had to be formally dropped, but other programs (like MATRIX, which stands for "Multi-State Antiterrorism Information Exchange) with the same characteristics have gone right ahead. The NSA has a program called "Novel Intelligence From Massive Data,"  while the CIA reportedly is using a data-mining program called 'Quantum Leap' that was described in a newspaper report as"so powerful it's scary" and "could be Big Brother.". Just talk of course. But in this case the speaker was the CIA's deputy chief information officer boasting to a reporter.

A British TV programme revealed in 1993 details of how the NSA was tasked to receive and handle communications intelligence to support commercial and economic interests. Also in 1993, President Clinton extended US intelligence support to commercial organisations by creating a new National Economic Council, paralleling the National Security Council. The nature of this intelligence support has also been widely reported. "Former intelligence officials and other experts say tips based on spying ... regularly flow from the Commerce Department to U.S. companies to help them win contracts overseas. The Office of Executive Support provides classified weekly briefings to security officials. One US newspaper obtained reports from the Commerce Department demonstrating intelligence support to US companies:

One such document consists of minutes from an August 1994 Commerce Department meeting [intended] to identify major contracts open for bid in Indonesia in order to help U.S. companies win the work. A CIA employee ... spoke at the meeting; five of the 16 people on the routine distribution list for the minutes were from the CIA.

Although it is very difficult to quantify the losses caused by industrial espionage, writing in 1999, the STOA researchers put the losses incurred by European firms at "several billion euros per year".

That is why, even fifteen years ago, globally, about 15-20 billion Euro was being expended annually on the interception of communications and related activities, with the bulk of it being by the English-speaking nations of the UKUSA alliance. Besides UKUSA, there at least 30 other nations operating major Comint organisations, the largest is the Russian FAPSI, with at the time an estimated 54,000 employees.

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Martin Cohen is a well-established author specializing in popular books in philosophy, social science and politics. His most recent projects include the UK edition of Philosophy for Dummies (Wiley June 2010); How to Live: Wise and not-so-wise (more...)

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