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Industry Standard

What has the world of espionage come to?

November 16, 1999
Web posted at: 12:50 p.m. EST (1750 GMT)

by Matthew Yeomans

(IDG) -- What has the world of espionage come to? There was a time when, if you were an evil communist government, or even a power-crazed villain with a fondness for Persian cats, the only way you could get close-up satellite pictures of U.S. nuclear bases was to do some good old-fashioned spying. Nowadays, you can just buy the photos off the Web.

In September, Denver-based Space Imaging blasted into e-business with the launch of its Ikonos satellite. Circling the globe every 98 minutes, it can deliver a close-up of any spot on the planet. Space Imaging, which has invested $750 million in the scheme, sees a niche in the novelty consumer market "This proves it, honey, the pool next door is bigger than ours." But the real money will come from selling its detailed views to corporations, media organizations and, of course, foreign governments. A one-meter black-and-white image will cost $29 per square kilometer and the minimum U.S. purchase will be $1000. International customers will be charged $2000.

Essentially, says John Pike, a defense analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, Space Imaging is "giving anybody with a dozen or a thousand dollars the same view of the world that the U.S. spy agencies have had for the last four decades." Previously, he notes, "You had to buy a satellite to get your first picture clearly a serious barrier to entry when it cost a billion dollars." Now, if North Korean leader Kim Jong Il wants a clearer idea of U.S. and South Korean military movements, he could conceivably charge it to his MasterCard.

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To make sure that doesn't occur, Space Imaging has pledged to the U.S. government that it won't complete transactions with any powers suspected of terrorist activities. And the U.S. reserves the right to limit the distribution of pictures deemed a threat to national security. Still, once this information is available over the Internet, it will be more difficult for Space Imaging, and the U.S. government, to control its use. The situation is enough to leave James Bond shaken, and stirred.

Or is it? If the Web gives consumers access to information to which just a handful of powerful state governments were once privy, then what are these intelligence communities now compiling on us? The answer, according to many privacy advocates, is chilling.

"There is a fundamental lack of control over intelligence agencies," says David Banisar, a senior fellow at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C. "[They] tend to have a blank check to do whatever they want in terms of national security."

In an interview with the BBC last week, the head of Australia's Inspector General of Intelligence and Security confirmed his country's participation in a shadowy global spying network, coordinated by the U.S. National Security Agency and known as Echelon. Both the U.S. and British authorities deny the existence of such a system. New Zealand researcher Nicky Hager, the author of a critically acclaimed account of the spy network called "Secret Power," described in Covert Action Quarterly the way "the Echelon system is used to intercept ordinary e-mail, fax, telex and telephone communications carried over the world's telecommunications networks." Echelon, he wrote, "works by indiscriminately intercepting very large quantities of communications and using computers to identify and extract messages of interest." It's possible that no e-mail message today goes unmonitored.

According to an April 1999 report on Echelon that the British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell compiled for the European Parliament, the U.S. has used Echelon to help American companies to compete for foreign business. In one instance Campbell reported, the NSA allegedly snooped on bids from the French firm Thomson-CSF (TCSFY) for a $1.3 billion contract in Brazil. Thomson was alleged to have offered bribes to the Brazilian government, but with the help of the NSA surveillance, the U.S. company Raytheon (RTNB) (which provides maintenance work for the NSA) was awarded the contract.

As EPIC's Banisar describes it, Echelon is no more than "a sophisticated and intensive form of profiling." Its actions aren't all that different from the recently revealed actions of Real Networks. Last week, the Seattle-based company was forced to admit that it had been using an identification code in its popular RealJukebox software to secretly profile the listening tastes of its users. Real Networks has learned that its customers don't enjoy being snooped on. On Nov. 10, a second class-action lawsuit was filed against the company, accusing it of violating the privacy of millions of online music listeners.

Internet privacy advocate groups such as EPIC are calling on the Federal Trade Commission to halt online profiling, or at least establish a legal code of conduct for the profiling that advertisers and direct marketers see as crucial. Still, it's interesting that in a nation that shows great disdain for government interference at nearly every level, few U.S. online consumers worry about private companies. Many still consider the Internet a novelty; if a company assures them that their privacy is respected, and offers them a bargain, most consumers will gladly surrender their personal information.

As for bugging your virtual jukebox well, that's the type of business espionage even Q would appreciate.

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