Tech Guides

Espionage Operations In The Digital Age

Espionage is a term that might conjure up thoughts of James Bond and Ethan Hunt – a world of secret codes, advanced weaponry, and undercover operatives. Depending on how far down the rabbit hole you’ve ventured on this topic, you’d be forgiven for thinking that all of this is actually something from a fictional film or book. In the real and contemporary world though, espionage is actually used by a global coalition of intelligence agencies to collect data about our online activities via digital surveillance.

Espionage
geralt / Pixabay

This is the concept of Five Eyes, Nine Eyes and Fourteen Eyes alliances. The United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand make up the Five Eyes group, who have had an alliance since the late 1950s to gather intelligence and share it between their ‘Five Eyes only’.

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When the Edward Snowden leaks occurred, he told the world about Nine Eyes and Fourteen Eyes, who are now part of the alliance and cooperate with the Five Eyes nations but do not necessarily share the same comprehensive information.

The aforementioned five nations are included in Nine Eyes, along with France, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway. These are then joined by five new members – Germany, Belgium, Italy, Sweden and Spain – to make up the Fourteen Eyes.

There are also ‘third party’ contributors, consisting of Israel, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and possibly others. These third party members generally sell information they’ve gathered to the highest bidder.

With the backing of their respective Governments, all of these nations utilize mass surveillance tactics to do things like monitor the internet traffic of citizens, intercept their data and generally spy on them. It’s not known why the extra nine members who make up the Fourteen Eyes are participating, but all members share massive amounts of data with the original Five Eyes and mostly with the US, but they do not have as much access to the information themselves.

The most frightening aspect of Five/Nine/Fourteen Eyes is that all members of these coalitions are able to engage in surveillance that circumvents their own countries’ laws! That’s because they simply spy on each others’ citizens in an act of outsourced espionage.

For example, Denmark let the USA’s National Security Agency (NSA) implant surveillance devices into Danish fiber optic cables, while Canada asked Five Eyes nations to spy on its citizens abroad, as Canada’s laws (like many other countries) forbid them from spying on their own citizens. Other examples include the US and the UK using loopholes to regularly share information that would usually require judicial approval, as well as one of Australia’s intelligence agencies sharing bulk, non-redacted metadata on Australian citizens – including law-abiding ones – in an act that completely disregarded the law.

What Information Is Collected

When Five Eyes was first formed, it was all about conducting intelligence gathering on specific targets for defense purposes during wartime. Thanks to information gleaned from the Snowden leaks, we now know that it’s all about gathering massive amounts of data from ordinary citizens in an effort to stumble upon not only those posing an actual threat, but also those who might be a threat to the political status quo or even just those wishing to assert their right to privacy. These are brief summaries of a few of the current known programs.

PRISM – Operated primarily by the NSA, alongside the UKs Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), PRISM collects data when triggered by specific keywords. These keywords are broad enough to encompass politics, energy, oil and drugs as topics, among other words related to national security. The data is collected from internet companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter, to name a few, and your data (including supposedly encrypted data, in some cases) will be collected if you even associate with someone using these keywords!

MUSCULAR and TURMOIL – Headed by the GCHQ with help from the NSA, these programs collect data (thought to be twice as much as PRISM) indiscriminately from Google and Yahoo internal data networks and share it with the NSA, who then scan it for anything ‘suspect’. Even though the data from Google and Yahoo are supposed to be encrypted, it’s intercepted during internal transfers, during which time it’s not encrypted at all.

XKeyscore – Run by the NSA but shared with all Five Eyes nations as well as Japan, Germany and Sweden, XKeyscore is the comprehensive program that analyses all the data from all the above programs (plus others) and creates a searchable database. Targets can be searched for using name, email, or phone number, but can also be found using other criteria, such as unusual words they use often, locations they visit using Google Maps, or using another country’s language often.

The NSA claims that these programs are only used to protect and defend the nation, US and allied troops, but the Snowden leaks show otherwise, with indications that they’ve been used to track Anonymous members, anti-corruption activists, anti-war activists, as well as those promoting internet freedom and with anti-government sentiments.

How to Protect Yourself

You may not be able to completely stop this invasive collection of your personal data, but you can take steps to avoid your data being collected. At this point in time, the best thing you can do is to use a reputable VPN to encrypt your data and hide your online activity from government eyes.

It’s vitally important to choose a VPN that’s known to not collect any logs or hand over information to the countries who collect it. There is comprehensive information on which VPNs meet these requirements in this article.

It’s also wise to avoid companies who are surveillance-compliant, such as Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft e.t.c. and choose secure browsers when surfing the web. This will be difficult, but there are good alternatives out there. These things will ensure your online activities are kept as private as possible, without drawing unwanted attention to yourself.