This month’s historic disclosures about the US National Security Agency by tireless journalist Glenn Greenwald have embarrassed the Obama administration and its allies. Greenwald’s source is Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor who has blown the whistle on a massive global snooping programme.
The disclosures to date are massive and in many ways unprecedented. Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked a classified Pentagon study relating to the war on Vietnam 42 years ago wrote that "there has not been in American history a more important leak than Edward Snowden’s release of NSA material... and that definitely includes the Pentagon Papers". And with more expected from Greenwald this week, the Obama administration’s problems might not be over yet.
It is still difficult to take in the sheer scale of the revelations. The NSA, an American spy agency with as many employees as the FBI and the CIA combined has, since the George W. Bush years, established a system capable of monitoring and storing the majority of private internet communications around the world.
Secret NSA documents show the agency claiming "collection directly from the servers" of the biggest internet companies in the world: Facebook, Google (which owns YouTube and many other services), Microsoft (which owns Skype and Hotmail), Yahoo, the PalTalk video chat service and Apple. The documents also reportedly mention a plan to add Dropbox, the cloud storage service.
The companies involved have all issued mealy-mouthed denials. However, if the NSA was telling the truth in these internal documents revealed by Greenwald, direct access to servers (as well as the sheer volumes involved) imply strongly that these intercepts of emails, voice-over-IP calls (Skype, Viber, Google Hangouts, etc.) are being made with no court orders or democratic oversight involved.
Indeed, American tech website CNET revealed this week that if the "NSA wants ’to listen to the phone’, an analyst’s decision is sufficient, without any other legal authorization."
Anyone involved in solidarity activism around Palestine is likely to have been cognisant of the possibility and reality of internet spying, and attempts by Israel and its governmental backers in the US and Europe to "monitor" and "sabotage" solidarity movements.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague has refused to deny the Guardian’s revelation that UK spy agencies have access to the NSA’s internet snooping system, dubbed PRISM. Hague even made the chilling assertion that normal citizens have "nothing to fear about the British state or intelligence agencies listening to the contents of your phone calls."
Which other US strategic allies around the world have access to PRISM? Is the US-UK "special relationship" more special than the Israeli-US "special relationship"?
The NSA revelations are on a completely different level to what has been known until now. The disclosures suggest the agency is not only able to intercept huge amounts of internet traffic, but is in fact sucking in vast numbers of private communications and storing them just in case it needs them later.
Greenwald’s article about an NSA system called "Boundless Informant" contains astonishing data in this regard. According to a map-based snapshot of the data, the NSA "collected 97 billion pieces of intelligence from computer networks worldwide" in March 2013 alone. The most spied-on countries are Iran, Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt and India according to this leaked data.
What is the Israeli involvement?
Another NSA snooping scandal in the Bush-era had a strong Israeli link. A secret room at AT&T, a major US telecoms provider, contained NSA machines running systems built by Narus. These were able to "monitor 108 billion emails from AT&T customers per day," according to investigative journalist Max Blumenthal.
Narus is a firm founded in Israel which allegedly still has strong ties to Unit 8200, Israel’s cyberwarfare gang and NSA-equivalent. Another such Israeli firm is Verint, which has "a revolving-door relationship" with Israeli spy agencies, according to The Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah.
It was already known that Verint helps agencies to spy on American and Mexican telecommunications, as one of our bloggers at The Electronic Intifada reported a few days ago. A recent Business Insider report hypothesises that the NSA may have contracted Verint and Narus to set up the PRISM system itself.
This would explain the companies’ denials that they knew nothing about PRISM: "Companies like Facebook and Google don’t have to explicitly provide the NSA with access to their servers because major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as AT&T and Verizon already allow the US signals intelligence agency to eavesdrop on all of their data anyway." Plausible deniability, in other words.
Whether or not companies close to Israeli spooks did indeed help set up PRISM (and at this point, we just don’t know), does Israel have access to PRISM in the same way as the British monitors at GCHQ?
An Israeli PRISM?
Here we return to Greenwald’s "Boundless Informant" article. The snapshot of the Boundless Informant data on the Guardian’s website is not very high resolution, but if you zoom in, you can just make out a dark green blob over occupied Palestine, meaning it is one of the least monitored. In addition, Syria is light green; that is, it’s more monitored but still relatively less.
Because these are only rough indicators we are into uncertain territory here, but if Israel has access to PRISM, one would expect a lot more interceptions of Syrian and Palestinian internet traffic.
One possibility is that Israel runs its own version of PRISM, built using very similar technology from companies such as Verint and Narus, presumably snooping mostly on Palestinian, Iranian, Syrian and Lebanese traffic. But if it does have such a system, it is likely to be spying all over the world.
Israel has already openly declared that its spies are "monitoring" social media like Facebook around the world. It does this to snoop on what it slanders as "delegitimisation"; in reality, Palestine solidarity campaigns such as the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
In 2010, influential Israeli think tank the Reut Institute recommended that Israel should "sabotage" Palestine solidarity campaigns around the world. After the Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara, Israel moved responsibility for such efforts away from the foreign ministry and handed it over to military intelligence.
Would Israel dare to collect millions of American and European citizens’ private internet communications wholesale in the same way that we now know the NSA has been doing? It seems unlikely, even for a rogue state like Israel. More credibly, do the Israelis also have access to PRISM data, like the UK? At this point, we just don’t know for sure. As Edward Snowden has reportedly handed over dozens more newsworthy NSA files to Glenn Greenwald, we may find out more in the weeks and months to come.
17 June 2013
An associate editor with The Electronic Intifada, Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London.