Some thoughts on sigInt and surveillance of yesterday and today, and Swedish government silence regarding Snowden


Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt is very active on various social media, and an active blogger since long time ago. That’s impressive, not many top politicians can match Carl’s participation “on the net”!

Carl is also famous for having been part of the first email based communication, 1994, between a US president – Bill Clinton –  and a foreign head of government (Carl was Swedish PM then ).

Yesterday Carl got some public heat on one of his Twitter accounts, @cbildt, and later in mainstream media, since Carl himself, as well as the rest of the Swedish government (as well as most of the other parliament politicians)  have been awfully quiet about the NSA surveillance debacle.

Furthermore, he got heat because he, as well as the rest of the Swedish political gang, have also been very quiet on the increasing governmental pressures,  in US and UK in particular,  to limit the freedom of journalists covering the government omnipotent surveillance angle, case in point being yesterday’s revelation that UK government considers the actions taken by Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, as being “acts of terrorism”.

The flaming accelerated when Carl on Twitter posted two (presumably rhetorical) questions:

  • If the police monitors all [my emphasis] traffic on a road to be able to take action against criminals that they have the right to monitor-is that wrong? [ link to twitter]
  • During WW2 Sweden was able to listen to German military and diplomatic cables and break the codes. It was of supreme importance to us. [link to twitter]

An amusing aspect was that one of the first replies to the first of Carl’s tweets came from one of the Stockholm Police’s twitter accounts, where the Police answered Carl’s question with a clear “yes!”, referring to a law that forbids the use of the ever present traffic congestion cameras for any other purpose than charging passages into and out of Stockholm city… 🙂

I find the two twitter posts very surprising, since they so clearly demonstrate that Carl does not appear to see there being any difference between NSA’s/GCHQ’s/FRA’s etc contemporary omnipotentcollect & store every bit of data you can get, relevant or not”  Big Data-approach, with neither the more or less random and sporadic traffic monitoring performed by the police, nor with the very targeted sigInt of WW2, where Sweden (as well as all other countries) did their best to capture and decode enemy traffic.

The reference to WW2 sigInt capture is particularly interesting: does Carl now consider the citizens of Sweden as the enemy, or at least the potential enemy…?  If so, who’s then the “enemy’s enemy”, i.e. the “Good Guys”…? The government…? The State…? The Police…? The military…? The banks and large corporations…?  This line of thinking, where the citizens are seen as the enemy,  has some very nasty implications, where the social- political-, finacial- and power distance between the citizens (“people”) and the “rulers” is enourmous, a dangerous abyss very likely to result in a totalitarian state, similar to that of DDR or the former Sovjet Union.

These tweets by Carl are also interesting, because they illustrate a  clear lack of understanding of the difference between targeted monitoring and mass surveillance, and the fundamental (technical) difference between the largely manual monitoring efforts of the 40:ties and the fully automated ones of today.

If we take the WW2 sigInt example, it pretty much consisted of capturing German and Sovjet radio transmissions over air, and decoding and analyzing these transmissions. To my knowledge, neither the FRA of those days, nor the secret police (SÄPO), did attempt to wiretap each phone box or trunk line, or every PBX, in order to listen to the phone calls of all citizens.  Nor did they, to my knowledge, steam open every letter passing the Post Office.  Due the the  “analog character” of the data, and manual effort required, the agencies of the 40:ties had to limit their monitoring to what was physically, economically and resource-wise possible. The key point is that surveillance of those days was by necessity targeted, not omnipotent.

Now, I’m not naive enough to believe that should the FRA and SÄPO of the 40ties have had access to today’s technology, they would have refrained from using it for mass surveillance. On the contrary, had they posessed the capabilities and capacity  of today’s  automatic collection, storage and analysis of any and every data bit and transmission, they surely would have used it. But before the advent of today’s automation, storage capacity and “Big Data Analytics”, the task of omnipotent mass surveillance would have been impossible, due to the amount of manual labor required, and the number of “informants” would have been astronomic – not even the East German Stasi managed to monitor and capture everything, despite having a ratio of somewhere around 1:10 in Stasi informers to citizens, that is, for every 10 East Germans, there was one spy.

Thus, in the forties, lack of automation  in collection, storage, retrieval and analysis of data prevented the authorities – regardless of where – to do mass surveillance.

Today, the technical situation is very different: almost all comm’s today are digital, i.e. easily processable by digital (automated) technology. Furthermore, Moore’s law ensures that mass surveillance is not only technically feasible, but also, due to ever increasing performace and decreasing price, also economically feasible.  WIth today’s technology, it is fully possible to conduct mass surveillance with minimal manual (human) intervention, store the captured data “forever”, just in case, and as we have seen lately, after Snowden’s revellations, the various government agencies have perused this technological advantage to a maximum.

The bottom line here, thus, is that unless the activities of the various government agencies responsible for surveillance are made very transparent, and closely monitored by a democratically elected body,  the agencies will, enabled by today’s digital technology and constantly growning demands from their prime “customers”, continue to push their surveillance capabilites as far as technology – not politicians nor citizens! – permits. And the very likely outcome of such a development is a fully totalitarian state.


About swdevperestroika

High tech industry veteran, avid hacker reluctantly transformed to mgmt consultant.
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