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Raffique Shah


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I spy, with my electronic eye...

By Raffique Shah
Nov 21, 2010

As I write this column, Government is before Parliament presenting the Interception of Communications bill, which it expects to pass in a marathon sitting. Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar said she hoped to get support from the opposition PNM, which I feel certain she will.

Whatever reservations some people may have, the Bill will become law. We can only hope the flaws noted by the Law Association, which would still leave citizens open to invasion of their privacy, are addressed. I have not studied the bill, but I have followed with interest the PM's revelations on operations of the SIA (Strategic Intelligence Agency), which prompted Government's rush to enact new legislation.

If the SIA was indeed monitoring electronic communications of the persons named by the PM, and those not named, then officers guilty of breaching the mandate of the agency must face the consequences of their illicit actions. I don't know that existing legislation allows for criminal proceedings in such matters. However, those who were victims of "maccoing" (why else would anyone monitor President Max Richards or my journalist colleagues?) must be entitled to recourse, if it means merely clearing their names of a perception of wrongdoing.

Those who are licking their chops in anticipation of huge monetary compensation for violation of their privacy may well be deluding themselves. My understanding is the only entity they can sue is the State, not the personnel who may be culpable. Even ex-prime minister Manning, to whom SIA officials are said to have reported, may be beyond their reach. If anything, the State may take action against Manning or former officers of the SIA. But that's a legal issue, and I am sure the attorneys will have their say.

My focus is on just how much privacy do citizens, be they official-on-high or ordinary-Joes, enjoy in this age of sophisticated eavesdropping. The new laws, while they offer some measure of protection against locals who use State equipment to intercept private communications, cannot prevent foreigners or foreign agencies from committing similar violations.

Take computer hackers as a case in point. They exist among us here and across the World Wide Web. They are computer geeks who have nothing better to do than "hack" into your computer, or mine. They can go so far as to "steal" our identities, maybe access our bank accounts or capture our credit card numbers to steal from us. Will the new legislation protect us from these cyber-predators?

I do not believe so. Hackers have accessed national security systems of governments as powerful as those in Washington, London and Moscow. Except for a few who have been caught, charged and jailed, infinitely more remain at large continuing their nefarious activities.

But it gets worse. For those who believe the Interception Act (as it will become when the President proclaims it) will offer protection of their privacy, they are deluding themselves. The US government's various intelligence agencies have capabilities to monitor global communications "traffic" anywhere in the world, Trinidad and Tobago included.

These include all mobile and land line telephone conversations, all Internet communications, video-conferencing, and more, much more. Echelon (as the main instrument is called) "is a worldwide network of clandestine listening posts capable of intercepting electronic communications such as e-mail, telephone conversations, faxes, satellite transmissions, microwave links and fibre-optic communications traffic."

In other words, even as we rein in our minuscule SIA, Big Brother in America has the capability to do exactly what we are trying to stop in our jurisdiction. It has always been this way, but it got easier for Uncle Sam to "macco" us as information technology advanced. So whenever we talk on our phones, send e-mail, engage in "chat" online, we are being monitored.

The Prime Minister would be shocked to know that BAE Systems (yes, BAE of OPVs notoriety) is the principal provider of billions of dollars worth of eavesdropping and monitoring equipment to US spy agencies. Those agencies may have as priorities suspected terrorist and criminal elements across the world. But what is to stop them using sensitive information gathered on, say, our Prime Minister, to leverage their way (in the case of BAE) into extorting money based on the aborted OPV contract?

One does not need the inept SIA to tell us what these international agencies and companies are capable of doing. A simple visit to BAE's website reveals the following: "Our sophisticated, all-source analysis program is led by Dr John Gannon, vice president of Global Analysis and former deputy director for intelligence at the Central Intelligence Agency. Dr Gannon is ably supported by a range of seasoned senior analysts and managers from the intelligence community…"

In other words, if the Government believes that exposing the SIA's illicit activities, reconfiguring its operations, and that enacting laws that carry heavy penalties would protect us in T&T from being "maccoed", think again. Leveraging intelligence for personal gain or power did not start with notorious FBI head, Edgar Hoover, or die with him.

Now, more than ever, these agencies, among them Britain's GCHQ (forget MI5 and MI6—they are petty in the game), the CIA's Directorate of Operations and the Mossad, have spread their information gathering wings across the world. Since we bought Israeli intelligence equipment, who is to say the Mossad, or rogue elements from that agency, are not gathering sensitive information on our politicians, our judges, hell, our overall security systems?

(To be concluded)

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