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.
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.
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.
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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