US spying, and casting the first stone

  • Putrajaya finally takes notice of US espionage that Snowden has been revealing for months now
  • Its reticence may come from the fact that its own record is not spotless either

US spying, and casting the first stoneTHERE’S nothing like an external threat to pull people together, even if it’s a threat that most Malaysians seem to be very sanguine about – espionage, spying and this era’s electronics-fuelled cold war.
 
Earlier this week, Australian dailies the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) and its sister publication The Age reported that according to top secret documents leaked by intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden, the United States runs a monitoring station in its Kuala Lumpur (KL) embassy to tap telephones and monitor communications networks.
 
A map originally published by Germany magazine Der Spiegel showed 90 such electronic surveillance facilities worldwide, including the US embassies in Jakarta, Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Yangon, The Malay Mail Online reported. The map was first published online in full, but was later replaced with a censored version.
 
Out of the blue, and despite the fractious general election in May, two politicians from opposing camps actually agreed on one thing: That Putrajaya should strongly protest this threat to the nation’s sovereignty and the trampling of the rights of its people.
 
US spying, and casting the first stoneMinister of Agriculture and Agro-Based Industry Ismail Sabri Yaakob told The Malay Mail Online that Putrajaya should immediately send a protest note to Washington if the accusations are verified.
 
“They have to stop; in fact, spying on [another] country is something that is immoral,” he added.
 
Meanwhile, Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who has even been accused of being a ‘US spy’ himself by his less-ethical political rivals, also urged strong action by Prime Minister Najib Razak.
 
“I think Malaysian intelligence, in particular the prime minister, should not be seen to be so submissive and not prepared to say anything. They must lodge a protest, there is no reason for … whether it's the United States or any other country, to be involved in any internal espionage in any country,” he told The Malay Mail Online at the Parliament lobby.
 
There was enough media coverage that Putrajaya finally had to respond, with Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi saying that the Government would investigate claims that the United States is using its embassy here as a monitoring station to tap telephones and monitor communications networks on allied nations.
 
While he refused to comment on calls for Putrajaya to censure Washington, he said, “We will study the report, if there was any intelligence gathering activities here, as we understand that it is a sensitive issue since it involves several countries.
 
“We will work with Wisma Putra to see if there was any spying conducted here... if there was, we leave it to Wisma Putra for action,” he told reporters in Parliament, referring to Malaysia’s Foreign Minister by its headquarters, The Malay Mail Online reported.
 
First an inch …
 
Well, it’s about bloody time. After all, the Government was inelegantly silent when Snowden’s revelations about the US National Security Agency (NSA) using a clandestine national security electronic surveillance programme called PRISM first came to light.
 
The NSA has been spying on Internet users worldwide since 2007, peeking into emails, chat transcripts, voice calls, photos and videos. US President Barack Obama’s response was that the rights of US citizens would not be trodden on – a claim that became harder to credit with subsequent Snowden revelations – but he did not spare a thought for the rights of the billions of us non-Americans.
 
Putrajaya kept quiet then, as it did again in August when Snowden further revealed that US agencies also have access to an online tracking tool called XKeyscore – even when the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Australian intelligence sources confirmed that software had also been used to spy on other Asia Pacific countries, including Malaysia.
 
British newspaper The Guardian described XKeyscore as the NSA's widest-reaching system that covers “nearly everything a typical user does on the Internet.”
 
Silence again.
 
Diplomacy, they say, is warfare on a different front. I can understand that in the rarefied environment of negotiating trade deals and getting foreign direct investments, a tiny country like Malaysia has to tread carefully with the world’s only superpower (whatever Russian President Vladimir Putin’s delusions of grandeur may be).
 
After all, Malaysia is trying to navigate through the tricky Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, and perhaps some of our political leaders think that having friends in high places could help.
 
And Snowden’s revelations, salvo after salvo, came as Malaysia was preparing to play host to President Obama, who would have been the first sitting US president to visit Malaysia since Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s, for the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) – an Obama initiative, incidentally. Who knew what goodies he would come bearing.
 
In the end, while Obama had to cancel his visit because of the US Government shutdown, his replacement Secretary of State Senator John Kerry did announce an array of initiatives and programmes to be conducted in Malaysia, as well as other nations.
 
US spying, and casting the first stoneHe who has not sinned
 
However, I suspect that the real reason Putrajaya kept silent was because it had no moral standing to cast the first stone.
 
After all, at that time, the Malaysian Government was trying to push across amendments to the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma) that legitimises wire-tapping against suspected ‘hardcore criminals’ and human traffickers – although the law itself was passed last year under the guise of an anti-terrorism and national security measure.
 
The bill was passed in Parliament earlier this month, despite protests by Opposition leaders and civil rights groups. Bukit Mertajam Member of Parliament Steven Sim Chee Keong, of the Democratic Action Party or DAP, listed five problem areas with the amendment.
 
As reported by independent news portal The Malaysian Insider, these were: That it violated the Federal Constitution; was vague in some areas; had no guidelines for how communications were to be intercepted; compelled Internet service providers and telecommunications providers to reveal confidential customer data; and most importantly, the police or any other person calling for this action need not answer questions as to why they did it.
 
Transparency? Accountability? Oh, come on, this is Malaysia. Remember, earlier this year researchers at the Citizen Lab from the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs found that command and control (C+C) servers for the surveillance software FinSpy were found in Malaysia, amongst other countries.
 
The researchers noted that this did not mean the users of this remote monitoring software developed by German-based FinFisher (which claims its surveillance software is sold only to governments and law enforcement agencies) were based in Malaysia, but it was later revealed that FinFisher executives had attended a trade show in Kuala Lumpur in 2011.
 
What now?
 
The US Embassy in KL has yet to comment on the allegation that it is a listening post used to spy on our nation, as well as our neighbours.

However, US State Department spokesman Jason P. Rebholz told The Malay Mail Online, “We are not going to comment publicly on every specific alleged intelligence activity, and as a matter of policy we have made clear that the United States gathers foreign intelligence of the type gathered by all nations.”
 
“At President Obama’s direction, we’ve begun to review the way that we gather intelligence, so that we properly balance the legitimate security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share.
 
“The United States takes the concerns of the international community seriously and has been regularly consulting with affected partners,” he told the news portal.
 
It’s now up to Putrajaya to strongly express its concern … pending its investigation, of course. I would recommend that this investigation not merely entail asking the US Embassy here whether, you know, it’s true or not.
 
US spying, and casting the first stoneOur officials can get some pointers from Duncan Campbell, an investigative journalist, author, consultant and television producer who specialises in privacy, civil liberties and surveillance issues.
 
Campbell, who has had legal clashes with different British governments through the years, was consultant to Der Spiegel in the magazine’s investigation into US espionage activity, including its interception of the phones of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other world leaders.
 
He has put up a useful page here and here with helpful photographs that can help our investigators identify possible spying equipment, saying that “the key visible feature of most embassy and diplomatic sites that give away their secret spying missions are large windowless areas on top floors, and also sheds or hangers on the roof which are designed to look as though they might contain lift or air conditioning apparatus.”
 
So, good luck to our investigators. Let’s not end this with a whimper but with a bang.
 
Related Stories:
 
Obama probably won’t snub Putin despite Snowden’s asylum
 
How the PRISM surveillance scandal affects Asia
 
MCMC probes The Malaysian Insider over spyware story
 
Malware targeting GE13, spyware maker was in KL
 
Lack of clarity and info on TPP a major concern
 
 
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