With stories coming in from all over the world about the prolific use of telecommunications to spy on what people are doing, the ball has been thrown back to the industry to do something about it.

National security issues have been driving international telecommunications arrangements for nearly 150 years. Ever since telecoms came into existence in the 1850s, spying was high on the mind of the people who started to use it. In 1865 countries formed the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), and this became later the first institution under the UN. All countries in the world are members. Until last year all ITU decisions were done without voting; they have always been able to get consensus, even during two world wars and the Cold War. That’s because no country wanted to be left behind in the developments of these technologies, and they wanted to know what technologies others were using.

In this (old) environment everybody was using the same technology, and therefore they were all using the same technology for spying — and they all knew that others used the same technology. The “red phones” in the White House and the Kremlin during the Cold War shows this. They bypassed the interconnected international telecoms system and provided a unique, secure connection between the two Cold War leaders.

What has dramatically changed all this has been the arrival of the internet and the mobile phone. Telecommunications is no longer just the few calls that people would make during a day, but their continued interaction with each other through the many new modes of telecommunications that have become available over the last 10 to 20 years.

This started to take control away from the traditional telecommunications companies. Others became involved and started to build new services on top of the basic telecoms infrastructure. Also, people started to make use of telecommunications on a far more personal level.

Technically, telecommunications started to change from analogue to digital, so telecommunications now resembles information technology (IT) more than it resembles the old telephone technology. The technologies used in telecommunications today are all based on computer system and software platforms.

“You can hack into whatever you want to hack into; under those circumstances it is only a matter of how much money you want to throw at it.”

With this change of technology two things happened. Firstly, there was no longer the one international standardised telecoms technology, but a plethora of different technologies. Secondly, control of the telecoms system was no longer solely in the hands of the traditional telecom monopolies. Market liberalisation saw a very large number of new players entering the telecoms market.

Now to the political situation; from a security perspective the big change happened in the US after 9/11. Suddenly the message was driven home that the world had changed and new technologies had become key tools. The US government started to pump billions of dollars into new security systems.

As everything was becoming digital, software and systems could be developed to hack into any ICT system. If an “ordinary” hacker with a very limited budget can hack into the Pentagon, imagine what you can do with enormous budgets. You can hack into whatever you want to hack into; under those circumstances it is only a matter of how much money you want to throw at it.

At the same time the US government started to look for its most trustworthy allies to make it easier to get a better global reach of their new spying machine. For their co-optation the allies would get access to this latest technology. This group is known as the “Five Eyes”; the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Further extensions have been made to include other countries, and based on their level of “trustworthiness” in the eyes of the Americans, a new group is known as the Nine Eyes. I understand there’s another group called the Eleven Eyes.

While over the last decades there has been — in general — plenty of warning regarding the lack of security in these modern ICT systems, it was whistleblower Edward Snowden who exposed the enormous extended spying system that the Americans have been able to built up over the last decade. It had become very easy for them to spy on whoever and whatever they want, it had become so easy that special warrants were no longer requested. They simply would spy on anything and everything, and then use technology to find the needle in the haystack.

What has happened in the last few months is like the  9/11 security effect in reverse.

After the American government pumped billions of dollars into the development of new hacking technologies, it’s now individual countries and companies that are putting billions into protecting their systems and their customers from the American spying machine (which of course could be anybody’s spying machine, including criminals’). There will not be many countries and many ICT companies that are not reviewing their security systems at the moment with the revelations gathered from Snowden.

From now on it will become far more difficult for America and its allies to conduct this level of spectacular spying. That window is closing very rapidly and the spy agents will have to revert back to the official policy that is to ask for legal permission to spy into the affairs of certain people. A cat-and-mouse game will make it increasingly difficult to do this in the blanket way they have got away with over the last few years.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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