But not the only threat to our national interests.
By Gary Scarrabelotti
John Lord, Huawei’s Australian Chairman recently told the National Press Club that he’d refuse any instruction from Beijing “to hand over Australian customers’ data in a bid to ease concerns over draconian Chinese intelligence laws that demand that Chinese companies co-operate with authorities.”
Lord, a retired senior naval officer, was angling for Huawei to be a trusted supplier of equipment to the construction of Australia’s planned 5G wireless network.
Well, if Huawei gets to play a major role in supplying core bits of the new 5G system, Beijing won’t be demanding customer data from John Lord. It won’t need to.
Having first made a promise he’ll never have to keep, Lord went on to concede that
“… there was a Communist Party cell in the company but said this was the law for major companies operating in China … the [cell] had no say in its operations and was more akin to a social club.”
Could Lord have dozed off during those staff college lectures about our foreign adversaries and how their political systems worked – lectures scintillatingly delivered, as they often were, by the unforgettable B.A. Santamaria?
Best move on.
The point is: Huawei is under suspicion because of its corporate links with the Chinese government and its obligation to co-operate with Beijing’s security and intelligence services.
The long-established political necessity of Chinese businesses to work hand-in-hand with the Chinese state, received an explicit legal reinforcement in June 2017 when a new National Intelligence Law was enacted.
The measure decreed that
“any organization or citizen shall support, assist, and cooperate with state intelligence …”
“state intelligence … organs … may demand that concerned organs, organizations, or citizens provide needed support, assistance, and cooperation.”
Obviously, those provisions include every Chinese citizen employed by Huawei.
Now, the hi-tech communications equipment that Huawei manufactures is just what a state needs to spy on its own people as well as on foreign folk and their governments – provided the spooks can penetrate the relevant technology and plug into the ‘data’ that passes through it.
Given that Huawei and its employees are in no position to resist China’s intelligence agencies, should they choose to tap into Huawei’s products, it’s reasonable, then, to distrust the security of Huawei equipment.
In the past, the federal government has banned Huawei from the NBN network (2012) and from supplying mobile phone equipment to the defence forces (2013).
China’s New Intelligence Law confirms the wisdom of those earlier decisions.
One might expect, then, that the federal Cabinet’s national security committee will decide to exclude Huawei from participation in the development of our 5G network.
Huawei would, nonetheless, retain some presence in the Australian market. It already supplies equipment to Vodafone, TPG and Optus for their 4G networks. In fact, a Huawei wireless modem winks at me every time I walk into my office. iiNet installed it.
So, is Mr Xi listening to my VOIP calls, reading my emails, and snooping on my Skype comms?
Surely, I’m not that important. But there are times when I look suspiciously at those merry red eyes batting eyelids at me.
It wouldn’t be paranoid to worry about foreign intelligence agencies scooping up the communications emanating from our federal and state governments, from our defence forces, from our private businesses and even from our homes.
Nor would it be over the top to be bothered about those same transmissions being monitored by the global corporations that sit astride our communication channels: Microsoft, Apple, Google, AOL, Yahoo, Skype, YouTube, AT&T, HP, CISCO, Oracle, IBM, Verizon, Intel, Qualcomm, Qwest.
We already know that it happens. It’s explicit in those automated software updates from Microsoft and Apple; we’re acquainted with cookies and browsing histories; and we know the ghastly Facebook story all too well.
But there’s more.
I’m glad the Australian government is alert to the danger of China bugging our mobile phone and internet systems. As serious as that risk might be, I do wonder, though, whether ‘our friends’ threaten our privacy and national interests as much as our ‘enemies’.
What got me thinking was reading, only recently, Glenn Greenwald’s 2014 book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA & the Surveillance State.
No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA & the Surveillance State; by Glen Greenwald: Penguin, London, 2015, pp. 259. (Originally published in the USA by Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2014.)
Unless you followed debates in the USA about privacy and surveillance there since 9/11, you might not be familiar with Greenwald. But I’m sure that Snowden’s name jumps out at you from the subtitle.
Anyway, Greenwald, a lawyer, anti-surveillance activist and columnist for The Guardian met Snowden in Hong Kong in May 2013 as he fled US intelligence and his job as a consultant, at that time, inside the National Security Agency’s Hawaii operations centre.
Snowden was a thoroughly conventional American patriot, a supporter – with a libertarian bent – of the Republican Party, and a computer whiz kid whose work in the CIA and as an NSA contractor gradually disillusioned him.
Greenwald, meanwhile, had made a reputation for himself as a trenchant, well-informed critic of an illegal mass surveillance program (and its subsequently legalised iteration) launched by the administration of President George W Bush.
How Greenwald came to rendezvous with Snowden in Hong Kong in the company of documentary film-maker Laura Poitras is quite a story. It might never have happened had it not been for Snowden’s determination to tell what he knew about the NSA.
Greenwald’s book is a super tight summary of the vast mass of information that Snowden passed on to Greenwald, Poitras and The Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill during 10 hectic days in Hong Kong.
When it comes to describing the scope of NSA surveillance revealed by Snowden, words fail.
“Collect it all”
The NSA scoops up billions of communications daily: emails, telephone calls, mobile communications, Skype conversations, and social media posts. And it does it with the co-operation – often ready co-operation – of all of the above-named US companies (identified in internal NSA documents referenced by Greenwald: pp.102 & 108) and others whose identities remain hidden behind code names like “Artifice” and “Wolfpoint”.
They provide access to “Internet servers, satellites, underwater fiber-optic cables, local and foreign telephone systems, and personal computers.”
Some of these companies actively redirect communications traffic passing through their proprietary systems into the NSA’s dragnet. Others, like Microsoft, obligingly re-engineer their products – “Outlook”, for instance: p. 108 – to facilitate the NSA’s ability to tap into them. Or, as in the case of the notorious PRISM project, they provide unimpeded direct access by the NSA to their own corporate databases.
The NSA’s grotesque ambition to “collect it all” – a phrase attributed to General Keith Alexander who ran the NSA from 2005-2013 – means that the NSA operates both mass and targeted surveillance programs not only against America’s enemies but also against its allies and its own citizens. In fact, spying on US allies and Americans themselves is actually more intense than on its enemies.
This vast operation is sustained by law – chiefly the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the 2001 Patriot Act – and by the highly secretive, quasi-judicial FISA Court.
These, in combination, have produced a security system no less coercive of American citizens and corporations than China’s New Intelligence Law. Refusing a FISA court order to comply with the NSA’s demands for data would be like resisting similar demands from China’s Ministry of State Security: a career-ending experience.
Australia, we’ll be quickly told, benefits immensely from the activities of the NSA since we partner with it.
We do that through the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance which brings together our relevant agencies with those of the USA, UK, Canada and New Zealand.
I wouldn’t doubt that the “Five Eyes” represent a huge advantage for Australia in our dealings with strategically crucial neighbours and in countries further afield.
But with an ally driven by such grandiose intelligence objectives as the USA – “collect it all” – could anyone possibly believe that USA does not spy on its “Five Eyes” partners and their citizens?
Leaving aside targeted collaboration, for example, between Australia and the NSA to gather intelligence on Australians engaged in terrorist (or potential terrorist) activities – we’d expect that, wouldn’t we? – can anyone seriously believe that an agency with a mission, in the American domestic context, of collecting data first and of dealing with the legal complications later would be deterred by the niceties of anglosphere allied relationships from collecting intelligence on us?
In fact, it happens routinely.
Calls you put in to your American business or academic partners; emails you shoot off to American friends; messages you flick via the Internet to your European cousins, which typically transit through US-based servers: the NSA strains every resource to collect, filter, decrypt, inspect and to store.
Who would believe, then, that an NSA operative would never – in the American interest – jump onto PRISM and search the databases of Facebook, Google, Skype, Microsoft or Apple and yet others, to suss out any Australian citizen who, at any moment and for any reason, might attract the attention of the NSA?
Well, OK, if you came down in the last shower.
What is deeply troubling is that both political liberals and conservatives in this country are utterly silent about the politically and socially corrupting influence of pervasive surveillance.
Why is that?
Two possible reasons:
One is that our political class has surrendered to the allure of “secrecy” and “intelligence” because knowledge is power.
The other is that our power elite is so terrified by the prospect of some future terrorist act that they have lost all sense of limits, of prudence, and of respect for their own citizens.
In seeking to protect ourselves, we’ve lost something vital, probably irretrievably.
This article is an edited version of one originally published on the Flat White blog of “The Spectator (Australia)”