But, but, this is what spies are supposed to do!

This included:

•?Setting up internet cafes where they used an email interception programme and key-logging software to spy on delegates\’ use of computers;

•?Penetrating the security on delegates\’ BlackBerrys to monitor their email messages and phone calls;

•?Supplying 45 analysts with a live round-the-clock summary of who was phoning who at the summit;

•?Targeting the Turkish finance minister and possibly 15 others in his party;

•?Receiving reports from an NSA attempt to eavesdrop on the Russian leader, Dmitry Medvedev, as his phone calls passed through satellite links to Moscow.

Everyone involved knew that people were trying to spy on them. Indeed, everyone involved was trying to spy on each other. This is just what spies do.

Anyone seriously think that the Russians don\’t try to spy on us in Moscow? Seriously?

The difference that needs to be observe is between these spies spying on Johnny Foreigner and their spying on us, the citizens of the nation that hires them. The first is normal, the second an anathema.

29 thoughts on “But, but, this is what spies are supposed to do!”

  1. An annoyingly discreet civil servant who worked in No. 10 for a while did tell me that when they went on foreign trips they generally did not take their mobiles with them, or had special ones for the trip which they threw away afterwards as the phones would inevitably have been hacked/bugged by the end of the trip. Particularly France.

  2. So Much For Subtlety

    The difference that needs to be observe is between these spies spying on Johnny Foreigner and their spying on us, the citizens of the nation that hires them. The first is normal, the second an anathema.

    But what if Britain gets America to spy on British people and spies on Americans in their turn?

    Nothing wrong with intelligence sharing, right?

    This is a storm in a teacup and it is appalling that the papers would talk about it.

  3. The Pedant-General

    “The difference that needs to be observe is between these spies spying on Johnny Foreigner and their spying on us, the citizens of the nation that hires them. The first is normal, the second an anathema.”

    Also, note the reaction. In foreign, governments behaving badly towards their own citizens is normal, here an anathema.

    Our reaction to this sort of thing is a mark of our civilisation and the standards to which we hold our government.

  4. So Much For Subtlety

    alastair harris – “and there was me thinking that blackberries were secure”

    Blackberries? Here was me thinking that there was one room in the house, at least, where the NSA did not reach. How foolish of me:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/1382025/Chinese-presidential-plane-bugged.html

    The tiny devices in the premier-s official aircraft were found in several places, including a lavatory and in the headboard of the presidential bed

    Jiang Zemin’s sex talk? To quote Mr Sulu, Ohhh Myyyy.

  5. I’m reminded of the time that bugs were found when the old Soviet (Russian?) trade mission building when it was was being demolished .

    Bugs were found which caused much gnashing of teeth by the Guardian, BBC and other usual suspects about how wrong it all was. It wasn’t until some some former minister or spy chief or similar worthy (its a long time ago so memory fading) popped up to say that it would have been a gross dereliction of duty not to do it that sanity returned.

    The issue with spying and intelligence gathering in general isn’t that we do it, as Tim says we all assume its going on, the question is how we do it and how successful we are and that’s where the secrets really lie.

  6. I liked Peter Wright’s story about bugging the Soviet Embassy in Canada – they used hard-wired microphones in the wall cavities. 13 were installed, numbered between 1 and 20 with a few gaps. Once one was found, the other 12 were located quickly but because of the missing numbers, the Soviets ripped the building apart looking for the others.

  7. Simply because it’s already common knowledge to everyone with half a brain, it’s not news. It’s just a way of giving ‘credibility’ to the whistleblower that told us nothing new. Everyone knows how this game works. We’re only supposed to believe Snowden isn’t playing the game but just holds up the Jesus card with a wide-eyed sincerity. How about Snowden tells us something we don’t know, for a change?

  8. God, I’m getting bored of people telling me this is not news. It most certainly is.

    Firstly, as Tim says, we’re supposed to spy on foreign enemies, not our own citizens. Secondly, even when we do spy on our own people, they’re supposed to be suspects of something, not just anyone. Thirdly, although obviously we know a certain amount of spying on our own citizens goes on anyway, the fact that it’s not supposed to is itself a limiting factor on its scale. When the state get caught doing this sort of thing, they’re supposed to deny it, pretend to crack down on it, wind it up, cover it up, and move on to the next project. The reaction of Congress, the White House, and Number 10 — “Yeah, and?” — is indeed unprecedented. They used to spy on some of us a bit, where necessary — enough to get the job done but not so much we’d catch them at it. They have now publicly declared their intent to spy on all of us all of the time and they couldn’t care less if we catch them at it because they don’t even think they even need to pretend that they suspect they’re doing anything wrong. They’re just brazenly telling us that a surveillance state is where we can expect to live and anyone who objects is with the terrorists.

    Look at it this way. If the NSA had done this to, say, twenty-thousand French people, there would have been an embarrassing international diplomatic brouhaha and the French would have got all sorts of concessions out of the Americans at the next round of whatever.

    The NSA have also been blatantly dishonest to Congress about this, which has severely pissed off at least a handful of Congresspeople. These are politicians who deal with the NSA and other associated clandestine stuff daily, so they’re not outraged because they’re so naive they didn’t know espionage happens. They’re outraged because something newsworthy has in fact happened.

    And the fact that the NSA felt the need to be dishonest to Congress itself demonstrates that they didn’t think what they were doing was unnewsworthy business as usual.

  9. I take your point that the main issue is that the cat is out of the bag, officially. My point is that Snowden has become (intentionally or otherwise) the NSA’s means of officially spilling the beans. As you pointed out:

    ” The reaction of Congress, the White House, and Number 10

  10. — “Yeah, and?” — is indeed unprecedented.

    Also his choice was to use the Guardian, which to date hasn’t been issued a D-notice about him (which it would comply with), and that he fled to Hong Kong, not a safe haven, and hasn’t been charged nor been the subject of an extradition request.

  11. 13 were installed, numbered between 1 and 20 with a few gaps. Once one was found, the other 12 were located quickly but because of the missing numbers, the Soviets ripped the building apart looking for the others.

    completely off-topic. I liked that story too, but a former colleague of mine went one better than simply liking it. At his school Leavers’ Ball, they released three sheep into the packed main hall, numbered clearly 1, 2, and 4. Which I thought was a work of genius.

  12. They’re just brazenly telling us that a surveillance state is where we can expect to live and anyone who objects is with the terrorists.

    I’m not sure it matters. Everyone now carries a mobile phone. Imagine if the governments of the UK or the US had ever tabled a bill that would require every single citizen, give or take, to carry a GPS transmitter at all times so they could find out where we are. Possibly with a back-up in case the first one failed. The outcry would have been universal. Yet we all do it voluntarily.

    Some people even voluntarily sign up to a service that broadcasts their every movement. Most people happily report to an anonymous body their every purchase in a supermarket. Most people’s spending can be tracked not only by size but by geography. In London, you are effectively fined for not carrying a card that records every journey you take on public transport. And, and this is the crucial thing, if anybody refused to have a mobile or a nectar card, or an oyster card or insisted on using cash for every single purchase becuase of privacy concerns we would think they were a crank with a tin-foil hat. Yet if you proposed being able to track all the above things you would be labelled the worst kind of Orwellian surveillance state.

    We do it to ourselves, without a murmur. Including me.

    (I suppose the only hope is that it all gets lost in the noise)

  13. As I said at The Register (in reply to someone making the same point as you, sam, but with added insultingness and contempt for the sheeple):

    You’re right: I’m not bothered that companies ask me for my data and then use it to try and sell me stuff that I want to buy at a price I’m willing to pay and give me special offers and occasional freebies, yet strangely do care when the entity that runs the police and the military and has the power to imprison or kill me takes my data without permission, often breaking its own laws to do so, and uses it to destroy my privacy and curtail my freedoms. Madness, right?

  14. @ Squander

    I’m not disagreeing, but once the data is there, it’s only a matter of time before someone who shouldn

  15. @ Squander

    I’m not disagreeing, but once the data is there, it’s only a matter of time before someone who shouldn’t have it, or who we don’t want to have it, gets it. And we’re all happy when the police track the mobile / oyster card of a missing teenager, inter alia, or when the bank phones up and says “Oh, sam, are you in Lagos? Only someone just used your credit card there. Would you like us to put a block on it?”

    My point was more that there is a slight cognitive dissonance between the reaction to the police tracking and foiling a terrorist plot (“yay for technology!”) and tracking and arresting eg a gardener who buys nitrates for his plants but also buys sugar in bulk because his wife runs a cakeshop (“horrid surveillance state!”).

  16. Squander, well said.

    The NSA has to to restore public trust. If it doesn’t, the next Snowden won’t blow any whistles, but stay in place and lace its networks and databases with viral horrors. Because they can.

  17. When it comes to foreign governments, spying is largely a waste of money anyway. What they are up to can be determined by simple observation and “what would I do?” introspection.

  18. @Roue le Jour:

    There are no titles, honours and lavish early retirements and pension schemes in the truth you espouse. This is a small country and the only real geostrategic players are the big boys: America and Russia. Everyone with any sense at all will realise instantly that these spying activities are a complete waste of time. It’s guns and balls that move this world, not some wankers trying to justify their department’s annual budget review. The intel services have all been busy trying to find a new ‘indispensable’ niche since the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall. They’ve gone down the technological route and just buy more and more toys. We shouldn’t overestimate the self-serving group of cronies whose lives suckle at the nipple of nepotism and privilege from start to finish. After all it’s just jobs for the boys. That’s all it ever was.

  19. If they create a problem (say, incite an act of terrorism) who will stop them? If they claim to prevent an act of terrorism who can deny it? These are the types of people to whom trouble never sticks. The lower classes bear the brunt of all blame. You can’t even see these guys. They think they’re playing a high-class game of chess, but in reality there is no such thing as losing in their game. Treason, loyalty and patriotism blend into one.

    All of these are reasons I also distrust Snowden.

  20. So Much For Subtlety

    Squander Two – “we-re supposed to spy on foreign enemies, not our own citizens.”

    But what evidence is there that we are not doing that? The NSA is allowed to listen to foreign phone calls. They have also been listening to foreign phone calls where one party is in the United States. I would think they are just the sort of calls they would want to monitor.

    Apart from that, they have been looking at the metadata – not the calls themselves, but the electronic equivalent to the address on a letter. Who sent it, to whom, and for how long. That seems harmless enough to me.

    “Secondly, even when we do spy on our own people, they-re supposed to be suspects of something, not just anyone.”

    Policemen walk the streets looking at people until they find someone doing something wrong. What is wrong with that? I do not even have a problem with police cars driving around with IR detectors looking for houses with grow lights although the Supreme Court has not yet come around to my point of view.

    “Thirdly, although obviously we know a certain amount of spying on our own citizens goes on anyway, the fact that it-s not supposed to is itself a limiting factor on its scale.”

    Indeed. It is not admissible in a court of law in the UK. It does not bother me that they do it though. I would hope they are keeping an eye on Jihadi websites and seeing who comes a-reading.

    “They-re just brazenly telling us that a surveillance state is where we can expect to live and anyone who objects is with the terrorists.”

    You have noticed all the CCTV cameras all over London?

    18Roue le Jour- “When it comes to foreign governments, spying is largely a waste of money anyway. What they are up to can be determined by simple observation and [what would I do?] introspection.”

    I do not see how this does anything other than spectacularly fail when considering the totalitarian countries of the past century. Who would think the sensible solution to anything was to gas six million Jews? Or deport ten million Kulak families to die in the snows of Siberia? Or institute the Great Leap Forward?

    Johnny Foreign is a rum cove at the best of times. An utterly derranged loon the rest of the time. An utterly derranged loon with a very good education in Western philosophy and politics on very rare occassions. Alas the poor country that gets a product of the Sorbonne. But liberals consistently fail to intellectually grasp what totalitarians are up to.

  21. So Much For Subtlety,

    > But what evidence is there that we are not doing that?

    Er, none. Your point? The criticism of the NSA is that they were spying on every single US citizen, not that they were doing that instead of spying on foreigners. The assumption is that they’re doing both. That doesn’t make the former OK.

    > Apart from that, they have been looking at the metadata – not the calls themselves, but the electronic equivalent to the address on a letter. Who sent it, to whom, and for how long. That seems harmless enough to me.

    Metadata of course includes GPS coordinates on mobile phones, so they were in fact tracking everyone’s movements too. Besides, I reiterate that the NSA themselves thought it was bad enough that they saw the need to be dishonest to Congress about it, even though Congress had legalised it, as Congress were also keeping tabs (or trying to) on the extent to which their law was being used and the NSA didn’t want them to realise what they were doing. In the UK, gathering all this data would require judicial permission, so GCHQ have used the NSA to bypass British law.

    It’s very simple. We have huge unelected surveillance bureaucracies and elected representatives keeping them in check. Whether you think the surveillance is harmless is immaterial: if you like it, you can vote for politicians who agree with you, and hope that the surveillance bureaucracies will do what the politicians tell them. The fact that they are not doing so is the problem.

    > Policemen walk the streets looking at people until they find someone doing something wrong. What is wrong with that?

    Scale. Policemen can’t be everywhere all the time, so they prioritise, which gives us a human law-enforcement system which ignores a lot of minor infractions. Once you remove that necessity — which politicians keep trying to do — you run headlong into the problem that it is pretty-much impossible to live a normal day of a normal life without breaking some law. If all our data is gathered and analysed and we’re issued automatic criminal penalties without the need for courts, we’ll all be criminals.

    > You have noticed all the CCTV cameras all over London?

    I don’t think I said I supported them. Besides, their content requires a court order to get hold of; it’s not all automatically fed into MI6. Would I oppose the set-up of such an automatic feed? Why, yes, yes I would.

    > I do not see how this does anything other than spectacularly fail when considering the totalitarian countries of the past century. Who would think the sensible solution to anything was to gas six million Jews?

    Damn straight. In fact, when Hitler explicitly declared his intentions, our German “experts” advised our leadership that it was just hyperbole and he didn’t really mean it.

    A lot of extremely difficult fields of work are constantly beset by claims that “any idiot could do that”, and that claim is always wrong, as easily evinced by the fact a bunch of idiots aren’t doing it. Roue le Jour and Skilful Art are applying it to espionage. Yeah, nice try, guys. Tell you what: tell us what Romania, Burma, and Sri Lanka will be doing in eight years time. If you’re right, you get to come back here in eight years and say “Told you so.”

  22. “A lot of extremely difficult fields of work”

    Is this is a conspiracy to make me split my sides with laughter? I can’t believe you include espionage among these categories of difficult work. Intel orgs adopt an easy come, easy go attitude to recruitment, with a high turnover of staff, for jobs that don’t require professional qualification. Essentially it’s the annual graduate milkround. They hire and fire, and like financial firms they look for people they can mold into a particular shape, not the ‘finished article’. Then they operate their staff using carrot and (a mighty) stick. Your claim that intel is extremely difficult work is misguided. By the way I used to be a management level civil servant, and I know very well what the civil service culture is like. So it did make me smile when you said it was extremely difficult work.

    What will Romania, Burma and Sri Lanka be doing in 8 years’ time? That’s not intelligence, it’s divination, and I don’t do the crystal ball thing. Your question should be: ‘what plans does [say,] Romania’s current government have for 2020, and what is the likelihood that they will be able to make those plans work?’

    The difference between unaccountable spooks and accountable decision-makers is that the decision-maker is the only one who has to weigh-up the reliability of eavesdropping and other surveillance data about projected intentions. The decision-maker has to compare what the spook’s report says with regional forecasts from REAL professionals: economists, generals, captains of business and the media. People who carry out extremely difficult fields of work rather than being 20-something inexperienced ‘Sorbonne loons’ (who can be spotted a mile off by diplomats and even Joe Public) who’ve been recruited on the annual milkround intake.

  23. I’ve met my fair share of Sorbonne nutters and from personal experience, their social capital is excellent, as they are able to convince others that they have a solid grounding in philosophy and culture. However, in reality they just wear the very very smooth veneer of an uber-spiv with an ultra-superficial name-dropping depth of knowledge a la Stephen Fry. Just thought I’d mention it because that’s what I’ve noticed. I’m not saying they’re all like that but the ones I’ve encountered are.

  24. Skilful Art,

    And yet military intelligence have pulled off some truly astounding coups over the years. Your view of the world can’t explain that; mine can.

  25. Aaaarrggh.

    So Much For Subtlety,

    Sorry, missed this point:

    > Apart from that, they have been looking at the metadata — not the calls themselves, but the electronic equivalent to the address on a letter. Who sent it, to whom, and for how long. That seems harmless enough to me.

    It’s not just telcos, it’s ISPs too. So that’s all email content, not just headers.

  26. A view of the world explains nothing. It’s only facts that back up claims. You said:

    “And yet military intelligence have pulled off some truly astounding coups over the years. Your view of the world can’t explain that; mine can.”

    Military intel is slightly different because it’s to do with reconnaissance and SIGINT. They are most likely fit for purpose because their objectives are more clear cut and success of failure is definitive. If they screw up, people die and military objectives aren’t met.

    About 5/6/GCHQ: there is insufficient data to measure their success because of the very nature of secrecy. Having said that, the fact is that they have improbably lost a lot of data on CD-ROMs and laptops on so many different occasions in the last 10 years, which means that unofficially the UK probably has strategic partners it’s not ready to admit to. That is either monumental incompetence or some outright dishonest dealings with foreigners that government ministers may or may not have been kept in the loop about.

    Those orgs have a history of catastrophic failure, and the official story is that they were infiltrated to the very top by KGB agents (Philby and the gang, who we would know nothing about but for Peter Wright blowing the whistle in the 80s). My view of the world is just a view, and cannot possibly gauge the effectiveness of the intel orgs. However I would simply note that success and failure are absolutes in every walk of life except in certain (very rare) ivory towers, and among those ivory towers are 5/6/GCHQ. The reason for this is they are commanded by toffs, and no matter whether Communism or American-style free market capitalism floats their boat, or whether someone dodgy flatters and persuades them to Twelver Shi’ite traditionalist orthodoxy at the Oxford and Cambridge Club, no matter whether they leak stuff or lose laptops in the presence of rival powers, they are still guaranteed their platinum-plated pensions and their entry on the government honours list. Meanwhile they get the ‘cream of the crop’ (in reality, just the most easily molded, personality-not-yet-in-place) of children (sorry, I mean graduates) to do the actual work, for little money and no recognition. Tell an ambitious youth they are elite and special, and they will do your bidding for 5 years (preferably before they develop their own sense of id and form an opinion about something like Dave Shayler did) and before he upsets the old boy order by being promoted, and repeat until you get your OBE. It wasn’t work. You will NEVER find a technician like Snowden in the upper echelons of the intel orgs. They’re all Classics and PPE guys and members of clubs. No ‘licence to kill’ but they have a clear and unrestricted ‘licence to fail’. That’s the beauty of it (for them). This is why they can afford to ignore terrorist threats and regard the Lee Rigbys of this world as expendable. In fact, they need to do that. If they stand for anything it’s the preservation of feudalism.

  27. Tell an ambitious youth they are elite and special, and they will do your bidding for 5 years…

    Good grief! If you’d said 35 years instead of 5, I’d swear you were the architect of Shell’s recruitment strategy!

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