Is The US Using Prism To Engage In Commercial Espionage Against Germany And Others?

from the well,-that-would-be-different dept

As we noted last week, one of the key claims following the revelations about the Prism program was that it was aimed at those outside the US, and that US citizens were caught up in it only incidentally. A further leak concerned the Boundless Informant analysis tool, one of whose maps showed which regions of the world were subject to most surveillance. Along with obvious hotspots like Iran and Pakistan, Germany too was among those of particular interest, as was the US (whoops.) A story on reason.com offers a clue as to why that might be.

The blog post focuses on an incident from the time when the whistleblower Edward Snowden worked for the CIA, rather than the NSA. Here's the original text in the Guardian:

By 2007, the CIA stationed him with diplomatic cover in Geneva, Switzerland. His responsibility for maintaining computer network security meant he had clearance to access a wide array of classified documents.

That access, along with the almost three years he spent around CIA officers, led him to begin seriously questioning the rightness of what he saw.

He described as formative an incident in which he claimed CIA operatives were attempting to recruit a Swiss banker to obtain secret banking information. Snowden said they achieved this by purposely getting the banker drunk and encouraging him to drive home in his car. When the banker was arrested for drunk driving, the undercover agent seeking to befriend him offered to help, and a bond was formed that led to successful recruitment.
In that quotation, there's the nugget of information that the CIA was not targeting terrorists on this occasion, at least not directly, but "attempting to recruit a Swiss banker to obtain secret banking information". That raises an interesting possibility for the heightened interest in Germany, as revealed by Boundless Informant.

Given that the NSA is gathering information on a large scale -- even though we don't know exactly how large -- it's inevitable that some of that data will include sensitive information about business activities in foreign countries. That could be very handy for US companies seeking to gain a competitive advantage, and it's not hard to imagine the NSA passing it on in a suitably discreet way.

Germany is known as the industrial and economic powerhouse of Europe, so it would make sense to keep a particularly close eye on what people are doing there -- especially if those people happen to work in companies that compete with US firms. In other words, just as as the CIA was looking to obtain "secret banking information" in Switzerland, it seems quite likely that the NSA also comes into the possession of similarly sensitive commercial data during its German trawls.

If that were confirmed, it would certainly change the debate somewhat. The standard justification that massive surveillance is indispensable in the fight against terrorism if lives are to be saved, would be replaced by the rather weaker one that it's rather handy being able to spy on Germany since its industrial secrets can be pilfered. It will be interesting to see whether any future revelations about the NSA's activities shed more light on this area.

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Reader Comments (rss)

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  1.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 12th, 2013 @ 2:13am

    If it can they will

    as stated in the film Risky Business - you only get into the Harvard Business school if you are prepared to do whatever it takes however immoral to win (its only when tom cruise offers a bribe to the Professor that he is deemed good (bad) enough). Big Business have run with this ever since. So, if the NSA can get the secrets and pass them on, then they will.

     

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  2.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 12th, 2013 @ 2:16am

    Actually, that wouldn't suprise me since it's nothing new to us in Germany that the US performs industrial spying. Several attempts are well documented. The friendship ends when money is involved :-(

     

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  3. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
     
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    horse with no name, Jun 12th, 2013 @ 2:22am

    Error

    Glyn, you won't get your Techdirt cookie this week, you forgot to make the title have NSA SURVEILLANCE in it.

     

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  4.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 12th, 2013 @ 2:32am

    Re: Error

    Jackass. There, now you have a name.

     

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  5.  
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    avideogameplayer, Jun 12th, 2013 @ 2:37am

    Wouldn't be a tad surprised if the Germans and possibly the rest of the EU started to cut ties with the States...

    Either that, or start spying on us...

    If they were smart, they start by shredding all those treaties they signed with us...

     

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  6.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 12th, 2013 @ 3:09am

    Re:

    I'm truly hoping these revelations will grind these treaties to a halt. They were a bad idea to start with.

     

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  7.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 12th, 2013 @ 3:29am

    Re:

    This is supposed encourage discussion how?

     

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  8.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 12th, 2013 @ 3:41am

    i'll bet a pound to a pinch of shit there isn't a single country that isn't under surveillance and every person in those countries too, regardless of whether they are 'high profile' or not. i'll also bet that even the heads of other security agencies are monitored by the rest. no one is safe any more because everyone is under suspicion. it's an absolutely ludicrous situation! and got nothing to do with terrorism!

     

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  9.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 12th, 2013 @ 4:09am

    Is The US Using Prism To Engage In Commercial Espionage Against Germany And Others?

    The government prolly not.
    The companies that CIA, NSA and other government agencies farm intel collection and interpretation out to, might.

     

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  10.  
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    Starke (profile), Jun 12th, 2013 @ 4:14am

    Re:

    Given that the FBI's passed intelligence to companies in the recent past, it wouldn't surprise me if "in the interests of maintaining American influence", that the CIA and NSA had in fact deliberately passed information to Corporate America. That said, you're probably 100% right about exactly how they passed intell.

     

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  11.  
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    Andy, Jun 12th, 2013 @ 4:23am

    Re: Re:

    There's absolutely no question that they have - such as the use of Echelon against the Airbus consortium to ensure Boeing won an aircraft contract in Saudi, and against France to win a contract in Brazil.

     

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  12.  
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    ahow628 (profile), Jun 12th, 2013 @ 4:44am

    Hacky

    This has to be the hackiest spy movie I've ever heard of. I definitely would NOT pay $11.50 at the theater to see it. I might download it from Pirate Bay though.

     

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  13.  
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    PlayNicely, Jun 12th, 2013 @ 4:49am

    Blackmail

    I think there might be something to it, however, the lack of surveillance in Japan (at least in boundless informant) would be hard to explain then, because Japan and Germany should be technologically and economically of similar interest to any industrial spy.

    I think the spying might have an element of blackmail to it. I have always wondered why EU and my own (German) governments are so strongly and successfully influenced by US demands like expanding copyright, reducing privacy rights, sharing banking customer data and so on. A few little calls here and there to the effect of "your wife really wouldn't like it if she heard of this extramarital affair, don't you think?" might do wonders to achieve US foreign policy goals.

    That and the fact that there are several career politicians, journalists and lobbyists who have spent years working in American think tanks before...

    By the way, at least for the Germans i can say that a lot of the anti-americanism stems from the feeling that the US have a lot of influence around the world that can not be explained by ordinary diplomacy. It would be good if the American public realized that not everybody who has come to dislike US foreign policy is irrational, socialist, anti freedom or pro political islam.

     

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  14.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 12th, 2013 @ 5:05am

    Re: Re:

    Its supposed to derail discussion.

     

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    out_of_the_blue, Jun 12th, 2013 @ 6:12am

    Read far more informed speculation by Jon Rappoport

    This line of thought goes MUCH further than the minion's mild musings.

    http://www.activistpost.com/2013/06/did-someone-help-ed-snowden-punch-hole.html

    Did someone help Ed Snowden punch a hole in the NSA?

    Total surveillance has unlimited payoffs when it targets financial markets and the people who have intimate knowledge of them.

    “Total security awareness” programs of surveillance are ideal spying ops in the financial arena, designed to grab millions of bits of inside information, and then utilize them to make investments and suck up billions (trillions?) of dollars.

    It gives new meaning to “the rich get richer.”

    Taking the overall scheme to another level, consider this: those same heavy hitters (NSA) who have unfettered access to financial information can also choose, at opportune moments, to expose certain scandals and crimes.


    Rappoport goes a little awry in the middle, and long, but it's worth reading.

     

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    horse with no name, Jun 12th, 2013 @ 6:15am

    In a related story...

    sales of tin foil are through the roof, with the funny part being that it's not really the good stuff anymore, and doesn't work as expected. The run on tin foil, mostly to build hats and shield pets from harmful government intrusion is said to be so overwhelming, that there is some consideration of rationing the precious material.

     

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  17.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 12th, 2013 @ 7:05am

    They can get electronic market intelligence without a swiss banker

    ... BY spying on Blomberg terminals, even Bloomberg themselves do it. Must assume the NSA do too - run a neat little trading account and make enough money to cover their surveillance budget with dodgy inside trades??

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2013/may/10/bloomberg-goldman-sachs-spying-terminals

     

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  18.  
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    madasahatter (profile), Jun 12th, 2013 @ 7:09am

    Re:

    I suspect they are already spying on us, like everyone else. Technical and commercial information is extremely valuable.

     

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  19.  
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    madasahatter (profile), Jun 12th, 2013 @ 7:15am

    Re: Blackmail

    One of the issues with Bradly Manning was that apparently he passed classified documents that had this type of information.

    One of the best ways to turn someone in to a traitor is blackmail. Few people turn traitor for political reasons so your good fill-the-blank citizen who can be blackmailed is often the best access to the information.

     

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  20.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 12th, 2013 @ 8:53am

    Re: In a related story...

    Yes, because spy movies are sooo 80s.

     

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  21.  
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    Holding my nose to say this, Jun 12th, 2013 @ 9:10am

    May be a slight rationalization for it

    Not to excuse the methods used, as going to these lengths against one of our (seemingly ever fewer) allies is repugnant, but weren't German companies a thorn in our side in regards to economic embargoes against Iraq and others? Didn't we find that there were many instances of the selling of technology, equipment, parts, and even the actual construction of facilities in Iraq by German companies? This is a slim justification for wholesale spying, and may no longer be relevant, but it might technically be within the true mandate of the NSA.

    Of course, once the information is gathered, might as well make the most of it. It would certainly be handy as leverage against Germany or as an incentive to gain favors or contributions domestically.

     

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  22.  
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    JackOfShadows (profile), Jun 12th, 2013 @ 10:38am

    Re: May be a slight rationalization for it

    I've hazarded enough conjectures elsewhere but the initial thought I had seeing the heat map was precisely due to whom the Germans were making deals with. That and it'd be pretty relevant to know how, when, where, and the ever vital why of EU policies/directives. Before the commercial angle was brought up, I was already quite convinced this would be a vital interest of the UK, not just the US.

     

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  23.  
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    Anonymouse, Jun 12th, 2013 @ 10:54am

    Most people don't seem to realise that hating that last remaining evil empire, the USA usually does not include the common citizens of that evil empire.

    I suspect that most people who hate the USA have no problem or beef with any of its normal citizens.

    As for the USA having a problem with German companies having traded with Iraq in Saddam's time, history shows that there was no reason not to. Since the murder of Saddam and destruction of Iraq was only to the benefit of the USA and the oil companies.

     

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  24.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 12th, 2013 @ 2:31pm

    How dare you! They don't mine their data-mine, they just ask it questions....

     

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  25.  
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    AC, Jun 12th, 2013 @ 11:35pm

    Quid pro quo

    I wonder what the tech companies got in return for looking the other way? Apple have had some pretty dubious legal wins in the last few years...

     

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  26.  
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    Keith, Jun 13th, 2013 @ 6:23am

    Who needs Prism

    With the advent of 'cloud applications' there's no need for the american government to use Prism for commercial espionage. We're giving our IP to them on a plate.

    All the key players in the cloud market have significant US operations and are susceptible to US government pressure and/or disclosure orders from their courts. Given the number of special interest lobbyists in American politics it's hard to imagine that anything with major commercial impact wouldn't be discreetly leaked. So if I was involved in an international business with competitors in the US, I wouldn't touch the cloud with a barge pole.

     

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  27.  
    identicon
    rick, Jun 14th, 2013 @ 2:36am

     

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