More Than Metadata

Background for Snowden Gate

The following is an article published in print media on 22 November 1998. The skankworks.net is republishing it in an exclusive online edition today with the kind permission of the original author in order to provide background on the recent NSA leak. Public discourse on the Snowden Leak itself has been framed very specifically in terms of “metadata”, something of which we webmasters know a little ourselves and which in the telecoms world refers to a Call Detail Record (CDR). The following article argues that all the content of our communications is recorded as well. — webmaster, 15/06/2013.

Who’s Watching You?

Who's Watching You For many years the suggestion that the government are bugging every telephone has been dismissed as paranoia or as a conspiracy theory. Skeptics would reason that it would be an impossible waste of resources to monitor all telephone calls. The better informed skeptic would produce persuasive figures, convincing themselves at least that this just would not, could not happen.

Doubtless there were many East German citizens that adopted and believed similar arguments. Believed that is until the collapse of the communist government revealed that the state security forces, the infamous Stasi, had indeed installed a bug in every telephone outlet in East Germany. A bug detached from the telephone that could listen in to all conversations in the room, not just those on the telephone. The Stasi had not bugged the telephone itself, they had simply used the telephone system as a cover for a massive covert surveillance network. The Stasi system was vast with some 500,000 informers and over 10,000 employed simply to listen into and transcribe the bugged telephone system.

From one point of view it is fortunate that only 10% of the East German population were connected to the telephone network. Even so the ability to instantly listen in to ten percent of the homes and businesses in the country must have seemed like a dream come true to the East German security personnel. Such a bugging system now exists in Western countries. Telephones on ISDN lines are rapidly replacing the older, less feature-rich handsets. ISDN phones can provide extra functions for consumers. What is less well known is that the ISDN system allows a remote operator to take any ISDN phone off-hook and use the handset to bug the room the telephone is located in.

This facility would never be abused in the West though, the skeptic reasons. We cannot compare the repressive activities of communist dictatorships with those of democratically accountable governments of the West. The cost in manpower resources alone would, the skeptic argues, rule out this form of surveillance in a Western nation since almost everyone is on the telephone – several telephones in many cases. Half the country would need to be employed to check up on the other half. Besides, mass surveillance is illegal in a free country.

An Appraisal of Technologies of Political Control

BBC Report on NSA Mass Surrveilance in 1997 Any skeptics that read the report to the European Parliament entitled “AN APPRAISAL OF TECHNOLOGIES OF POLITICAL CONTROL” may wish to reconsider their stance. Denial of their prior skepticism may be the option of choice when confronted with evidence that just such a spy network does in fact exist and operate in Western Europe. The report, commissioned by the Civil Liberties Committee of the European Parliament, was published in December 1997 and confirmed the existence of a huge electronic spy network that monitors all electronic communications in Europe. Every telephone call, every fax, and all data communications can, and indeed are being indiscriminately monitored as a matter of routine.

The human resources required to perform such a massive surveillance task no longer hinders since the spies – known in the trade as “signals intelligence” or SIGINT – are banks of computers. Technology has existed since the 1970s that can transcribe spoken conversations and “read” faxes, converting the content into a form suitable for automated analysis by intelligent computer programs. The advent of the mass use of email significantly enhances the power of these computers since email by its very nature is in a form suitable for instant analysis, freeing up system resources to allow the monitoring of an increasing proportion of the world’s communications.

Messages are “read” by computers that apply state-of-the-art techniques of artificial intelligence to perform content analysis. Provided with a dictionary of potentially suspicious names, words, and phrases the sigint computers compile lists of all those communications that may be suspect. The names or numbers of the people concerned are then passed on to human operators who will decide whether closer investigation of the individuals involved is warranted.

Just who would be running such a spy network in Western Europe? Is this another example of Brussels intruding on the British way of life? Is it run by the British Security Services on the look out, perhaps, for future Mandelsons? Is it a vital tool standing in defence of the British Isles? It is none of these. The installation is in fact the 13th USASA Field Station based at Menwith Hill in the North of England, an RAF site which the US Govt. leases from Britain. This is a cover name and the installation is actually operated by the US National Security Agency and its exact purpose is, or rather was until recently, a mystery. The site is part of a global US surveillance system known as Project P415.

The Menwith Hill listening post is the largest installation of this global surveillance system operated by the US government with the cooperation of Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. These five nations, allies during World War Two, pooled their intelligence resources in the fight against tyranny. After the war, in 1947, they formed an agreement known as the UKUSA agreement. This secret treaty allows each of the five signatories to continue sharing intelligence, to use each other’s intelligence gathering resources, and, more sinisterly, it allows each nation to circumvent its own national laws in intelligence operations targeted against their own citizens.

The Menwith Hill base is conveniently located next to a strategic Post Office communications tower. The major listening posts around the world are located so as to give US sigint almost complete coverage of the international communications network. The Earth is ringed by a network of international telecommunications satellites known as Intelsat. These sit high above the equator in geostationary orbit and relay tens of thousands of telephone calls, faxes, and email messages simultaneously. This network is spied upon by listening posts located at Morwenstow in Cornwall, Sugar Grove in West Virginia, the Yakima Firing Centre in Washington state, Waihopai in New Zealand, and Geraldton in Western Australia. The location of these electronic ears provides complete coverage of the Intelsat network. Communications satellites that were put into place by the Soviet Union, and other nations considered hostile, are monitored by a separate network of listening posts. These are at Shoal Bay, in Northern Australia; Leitrim, in Ottawa; Bad Aibling in Germany; Misawa in Japan; and the largest of all at Menwith Hill in the UK.

There is also a large amount of telecommunications traffic that travels overland (by microwaves and cables) and along the seabed by cables that span the oceans. This traffic tends to converge on large cities and it is very easy for sigint operators to intercept. All that is required is an anonymous building somewhere along the signal path, connected into the network by a hidden cable or microwave receiver. In London, for example, there is an anonymous red brick building located at 8 Palmer Street where GCHQ routinely intercept and monitor every telex that passes through London. The content of these telexes is then fed into a dictionary computer for analysis and any suspect messages are automatically forwarded to one or more of the five partners that may be interested.

The purpose of the Palmer Street installation was revealed to the World In Action documentary series produced by Granada Television by an unnamed former GCHQ official. He told Granada that the monitoring of telecommunications is ‘nothing to do with national security. It’s because it’s not legal to take every single telex. And they take everything: the embassies, all the business deals, even the birthday greetings, they take everything. They feed it into the Dictionary.’ What the documentary did not reveal, or was perhaps prevented from revealing, is that this listening operation is carried out on behalf of the American NSA under the terms of the UKUSA Agreement.

British researcher Duncan Campbell has revealed that the Post Office communications tower sited close to the Menwith Hill station is in fact a key component of the telecommunications backbone in the UK and is linked by wire directly into a secretive “Dictionary” spy network. To get some idea of the scope and range of the listening devices at Menwith Hill consider that in 1991 it was awarded the NSA’s coveted “Station of the Year” award in recognition of its role during the Gulf War.

The computers that perform the automatic snooping are known under the codename ECHELON, or “The Echelon Dictionaries”. Each of the five “dictionary” stations around the world goes under its own codename. For example the Washington and Waihopai dictionaries are known as COWBOY and FLINTLOCK respectively.

So the United States National Security Agency routinely monitors all European telecommunications. For what purpose? The ECHELON system dates back to a secret agreement made during the post war atmosphere of 1947. The agreement, known as the UKUSA Treaty was signed by the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, with the aim of cooperating in the development of a global intelligence organization sharing resources and common goals. During the Cold War the purpose of ECHELON was to monitor the Soviet Union, a purpose for which the West was prepared to spare no expense.

The end of the Cold War promised massive cut backs in defence spending, the so-called “Peace Dividend”, which led to defence departments fighting to maintain their share of the defence budget. The intelligence agencies justify their continuing expense by re-focusing their attention on to terrorists and drug traffickers. The Military-Industrial Complex of the Cold War has, during the Nineties, been transformed into a Police-Industrial Complex that threatens to become an Orwellean nightmare. Intelligence services now operate to a new brief known as “Operations Other Than War or Law Enforcement”.

In Great Britain the branch of the Secret Service most obviously affected by the end of the Cold War is MI6, the department responsible for “external security” – a euphemism for spying on foreign nations. There is doubtful legality in MI6 investigating British citizens, since this is a role normally carried out by the police or MI5. One of the beauties of the UKUSA agreement however, is its reciprocity. Under the agreement the US may spy on British citizens and the UK in turn spies upon Americans. Each nation may then pool the information gained and effectively spy upon their own citizens without breaking any national laws designed to prevent such behaviour. Both nations follow the strict letter of their own law but adopt a distinctly atheist stance towards the spirit of the law.

The dubious activities of the Menwith Hill listening station were detailed in Parliament in 1994 by Bob Cryer MP, the member for Bradford South. Speaking during an adjournment debate Mr. Cryer began by reminding the government of a question he had been asking ministers for more than six years. A question he put to a succession of defence ministers asking them to ‘list the agreements authorizing the use of Menwith Hill communications base, Harrogate, by the United States National Security Agency’ that was never satisfactorily answered. A long time campaigner against the base Cryer said ‘Its establishment has been accompanied by lies, evasion, deceit and a persistent refusal on the part of Ministers to provide proper information to elected representatives’.

‘In other words’, continued Cryer, ‘elected Members of Parliament are denied information on the appropriation of more than 200 acres of land by the United States Government, who now run a spy station in the heart of our country which is linked up to a global network. That is inexcusable. If there is parliamentary accountability, the moon is made of green cheese.’ After detailing the initial purchase of the site by the US Army and its subsequent take over by the NSA – after the Army objected to spying on civilians – Cryer described its current activities as ‘a sophisticated version of the man in the dirty raincoat looking through a bedroom window or the pervert spying through a lavatory keyhole. Those who defend the station’s invasion of our land, which has never been approved by parliament, are no better’.

Referring to unanswered questions he had put to Ministers throughout the nineties Cryer went on ‘There is no glory or wonderful purpose involved in Menwith Hill. That is all the more true now that the cold war is over. Ministers justified the Menwith Hill base by saying it was part of the cold war, but we understand that that has finished. What is their justification for the spy station now?’

One of the station’s activities that the government must justify was; ‘The fact that domestic intrusion exists at Menwith Hill station is surely shown by the fact that British Telecom has a 32,000-telephone line capacity from Hunter’s Stone Post Office tower along the B6451 to Otley. There cannot be 32,000 telephones on the base in simultaneous use; that defies credibility’. It should be noted that there were then only around 1200 staff employed at the base, in itself a trebling of capacity since the end of the Cold War. ‘The Hunter’s Stone Post Office tower happens to be a pivotal point of more than 1 million route miles of microwave radio connections installed in Britain. The cable from Hunter’s Stone Post Office tower runs directly to Menwith Hill. There has never been any parliamentary authority to allow this serious and unwarranted intrusion into our telephone network’.

Cryer then went on to comment on possible US commercial exploitation of the base. ‘There are two large United States firms within the military-industrial complex: Loral Space Systems Incorporated, formerly a part of Ford, and Lockheed Aerospace. They sell much of the spy equipment and they are both involved in arms sales to third-world countries. Menwith Hill gains information that would be useful to them. Lockheed and Boeing, for example, oppose the success of Airbus Industrie, which has sold many aeroplanes round the world. Can the minister guarantee that information about commercial matters relating to Airbus Industrie and the sales of the Airbus 300, for example, has never been picked up by Menwith Hill and has never been passed on to part of the US military-industrial complex? Both Boeing and Lockheed depend for their continued existence on military contracts from the United States Government’.

A specific example of the commercial use of spy networks was described by former head of the CIA Howard Teicher. ‘The United States was always concerned about the purchase of non-American advanced armaments by the government of Saudi Arabia. We were certainly aware that by preventing a foreign government from selling something that we hoped would lead to an American entity to be able to sell, it would certainly contribute to our commercial interest’. That foreign nation should be doing this with British resources on British territory prompted Cryer to accuse the then Conservative government of betraying the British people. ‘Our Government’, he said, ‘continue to betray our people by allowing spy stations such as Menwith Hill to be dominated and operated by the United States, without any control that is visible to the people at large’.

In support of his opposition to the base he quotes former employees and victims of ECHELON. Margaret Newsham, a former Menwith Hill employee says ‘From the very beginning of my employment, it became very much aware to me that massive security violations were taking place. All the programmes that I did work on were subject to these abuses’. Abdeen Jaburo, a US lawyer and victim of NSA surveillance, said ‘It took me eighteen years to get my records finally destroyed. It is like Big Brother. It’s like 1984, surveilling people all over the globe. And if you’re British, if you’re French, if you’re Dutch, you’re any-any people, anywhere you have no rights to complain about this. You have zero rights’. An employee of the NSA he quotes has saying ‘Menwith Hill was responsible for intercepting ‘ILC’ and ‘NDC’ traffic from 1966 to 1976. Then came the satellite intercepts, like MOONPENNY. ILC is International Leased Carrier-basically, ordinary commercial traffic. Your and my phone calls. And “NDC’ is ‘Non-US diplomatic communications’. But that job later moved out of Menwith Hill, during the 1970s to Chicksands, where a special unit called DODJOCC was run by the NSA, direct from Menwith Hill. DODJOCC stands for Department of defence Joint Operations Centre Chicksands. Because of the high sensitivity of its work no Britons were ever allowed in’.

Sadly, shortly after delivering this speech Mr. Cryer, a committed and life-long peace campaigner, was tragically killed in a traffic accident. However he concluded his speech by repeating the same questions that had met with, in his own words, ‘lies, evasion, deceit and a persistent refusal on the part of Ministers to provide proper information’. The questions, which remained for some years largely unanswered were: What is the first priority at Menwith Hill? Will the Minister publish the agreement that allows Menwith Hill to be operated at the base near Harrogate? Why should not the people of the people of the United Kingdom know about these matters? What laws govern the operation of Menwith Hill? Do the United States employees there come under United Kingdom law or does the Visiting Forces Act 1952 apply to civilians? What rights do individuals or companies have if they believe that they are being spied on by Menwith Hill? For example, can the Minister give a categorical assurance that Menwith Hill is not intercepting commercial traffic?

The spy station at Menwith Hill has been known about for some time. The first report was as long ago as 1980 when New Statesman magazine published an article describing Menwith Hill as ‘The Billion Dollar Phone Tap”. Armed Forces Ministers have spent years evading questions about Menwith Hill. Questions, such as those above, that prompted Ministers of successive parties of government to answer – or rather avoid answering – with unusual similarity.

When serving as Armed Forces Minister, Jeremy Hanley (Conservative) declined to answer with uncharacteristic frankness. ‘The function of Menwith Hill station’ he told Bob Cryer ’is regarded by Her Majesty’s Government as being of the highest importance to the country’s defence strategy and is subject to confidential arrangements between the UK and US Governments. The work carried out there is highly sensitive and rightly classified as secret. I believe very firmly that it would not be in the national interest, and would indeed defeat the very purpose of that work, if I were to comment in any detail on the activities that I have seen conducted there.’ Labour Minister, Dr John Reid, was less forthcoming when replying to a written question put by backbench MP Mr. Baker. In essence though, he agreed with his Conservative predecessor by non-replying ‘I am withholding information on the operations of the intelligence and security agencies under exemption 1 of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information on the grounds of national security’. Earl Howe (Conservative) avoided the subject with ease ‘It is not government policy to comment on the detailed operations at RAF Menwith Hill’.

Can it really be in our national interest to allow the US government to bug our telephones for industrial espionage that benefits US companies at the expense of our own? Is the British government, perhaps, gaining economic or political advantage from the surveillance it performs – as part of the reciprocity of the UK-USA Agreement – on US communications? The first question that needs to be answered is just what this surveillance system is capable of.

During the Cold War the primary purpose of Menwith Hill and its related stations was to spy on the communications of the Soviet Union and other hostile powers. At that time most of the monitoring would have been performed by human listeners transcribing the communications of target individuals. Diplomatic telephone calls were considered highest priority and these would be intercepted routinely and transcribed by intelligent voice recognition software called Oratory. Faxes would have been analyzed by optical character recognition (OCR) systems that could ‘read’ the text and compare it with the dictionary of suspicious words. Software such as this is available to the public and it is becoming more and more reliable.

The cutting edge software available to security services are presumably even more advanced. For example, the so-called “Ring of Steel” around London’s financial district uses highly advanced software to monitor traffic. Whenever a car or motorcycle enters the City surveillance cameras take a picture of the registration plate. The registration number is then ‘read’ by an OCR system and a request for information on the vehicle is sent to the online Police National Computer (PNC). If the PNC has listed the vehicle as ‘suspicious’ the surveillance system – which have complete coverage of the entire square mile – will follow concentrate on the suspect for the entire time that it remains within the Ring of Steel. A recent development that police forces are beginning to deploy is surveillance software that can recognize individual faces on closed circuit television systems. Doubtless the Menwith Hill station has been using systems at least as powerful as these to automatically spy upon a growing number or telephone and fax communications.

No such sophistication is necessary for the NSA to monitor, and analyze the content of, Web communications. All communications on the Web are, by its very nature, already in a format suitable for computer analysis. Email is very often just plain text that may be directly compared to ECHELON’s dictionaries. It requires relatively little computer resources to mass monitor email and as the use of email has grown throughout the nineties its employees must have been inundated with names of individuals that the Dictionary computers regard as ‘suspicious’. Is it, then, any surprise that the number of staff employed at Menwith Hill has grown from 400 to 1800 since the end of the Cold War?

Government agents, or spooks as they are commonly known, are not just watching the Web – they are also using it. When ex-MI5 agent David Shayler was accused by the British government of breaching the Official Secrets Act he threatened to expose details of MI5 operations on a Web site. He was held in prison in France for several months before the French courts rejected the British application for his extradition. However, the Web site that Shayler was intending to use to ‘expose’ MI5. On investigation the network hosting Shayler’s site also hosts the Web pages of a company specializing in surveillance at rates ‘as low as $30 per agent per hour’. It also hosts a Boston based sex site, a direct marketing company, and a cultist site offering to sell “Bible Reading Classes”. It appears as though, on the Web at least, Shayler is keeping with the company one might of an MI5 agent.

One investigator, who anonymously posts to the Web, has claimed that the company hosting Shayler’s site is a front organization of the CIA. If this is true then it is incredulous that an ex-MI5 agent should happen to choose it to host his illegal revelations of state secrets. On Shayler’s unexpected release from prison in Paris the entire episode took on an air of disinformation. The Parisian backdrop to his imprisonment was the secrecy of the investigation into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. At about the same time as the Shayler affair an alleged former CIA agent was arrested for attempting to sell “secret papers” indicating a joint CIA/MI5 operation to cover up the circumstances of Diana’s death.

Whether or not the Shayler episode was an official disinformation campaign, or merely the revenge of a disgruntled ex-employee, the fact that secret agents are out and about on the Web is clear. This is a fact that is also clear to Mark S., the owner of a Texan printing company that also was involved in the production of paper from Hemp grown in California. Having spent time in prison for refusing to participate in the Vietnam War, Mark was suspicious that he would be considered a target for the security services. His suspicions were confirmed early in 1998 when he sent email to a friend in Columbia in which he jokingly referred to killing the President. That same afternoon a group of FBI agents turned up at his printing firm for a full scale search. Not having found anything illegal the agents left, but before they did one of the agents advised, according to Mark, “Be careful what you write in email”. No one should consider email private, but many people still do. Even the infamous Starr Report, that in 1998 luridly chronicled the sex life of President Clinton, references the contents of private email messages sent by Monica Lewinksy. The FBI is pressuring to listen in on private Web communications. It wants permission to access voice information sent over the Web without having to show reasonable grounds for suspicion that a telephone tap of the same individual would require. The Web is already being exploited by law enforcement agencies to circumvent laws put in place to protect the public.

It isn’t just government agents that are spying on people over the Web. To mark the 50th anniversary of the writing of George Orwell’s “1984” the pressure group Privacy International organized the first annual Big Brother Awards. Privacy International are a group of academics, writers, and lawyers directed by activist Simon Davies. Speaking about the awards to the press, Davies said that ‘surveillance has now become an inbuilt component of every piece of information technology on the planet’. He hoped that the awards would be ‘the beginning of a movement’. The awards were split into five categories and covered all forms of surveillance technology. The categories were; corporation, local government, national government, product, and lifetime achievement.

The Lifetime Achievement Award was naturally won by the NSA’s Menwith Hill spy station. The base commander of Menwith Hill declined the invitation to send a representative of the station to collect the award. Other awards went to Newham Council in recognition of its pioneering use of surveillance cameras connected to face recognition computers that automatically identify ‘people of interest’. A company called Harlequin won the Product Award for its WatCall telephone traffic analysis system provides police with the ability to build ‘friendship networks’ of telephone users that can be linked into the Police National Computer to automatically identify ‘people of interest’.

Another award went to a Esther Bull, a 19 year-old student who discovered her landlord had installed a video camera behind a two way mirror in her flat. The lack of legal protection for personal privacy meant that she had to bring a prosecution under the “bad landlord” law. The landlord has been taping her for over two years. This is precisely the sort of scenario that certain Web site operators would exploit by connecting the video camera to the Web and charging people up to $10 per hour to spy on the girl over the Web. Not to mention the inevitable extra revenue generated by sales of video “highlights”. The Department of Trade and Industry awarded for its farcical attitude to privacy and security of the Web – of which we shall be hearing more. A video was shown at the ceremony of a Privacy International activist being dragged from the DTI by several burly police officers after he had tried to present the award.

The notion of privacy is vanishing and automated surveillance computers are proliferating. The Web is poised to dominate communications in the next century and it is also ideal for automatic mass surveillance. It threatens to provide the State with unprecedented powers to monitor, and hence control the population. Computer based surveillance is a growth area, and its products are growing more and more sophisticated. Far from a tool for empowerment the Web is threatening to become a pervasive observer. Silently watching, recording, and analysing the population it will dutifully alert its shadowy masters to those individuals that it considers to be ‘of interest’.

Governments around the world are at present reluctant to relinquish their interest in using the Web for surveillance. As we shall see in later chapters the technology to secure the Web is already available. Governments, however, are trying to outlaw such technology, offering inferior alternatives that the industry and the public alike have dismissed. The current situation for privacy on the Web is confused, and the confusion is exploited by all manner of individuals and organisations, eager to profit from infringements of privacy. It is a situation that has caused mistrust among consumers, and is preventing the Web from attaining its full commercial potential.

First published, November 1998

Related Links:
Blocking Ads and Trackers
EU Report on ECHELON

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