SINOGRAPH Common folk aren't US's cyber-targets
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - Can we be honest? With the development of new technologies, there are no more secrets for anybody. It is possible now - the technology exists - to tap every single call made by all the mobile phones in a country, record them, and store them. Recording and storing is cheap, so it can be done systematically.
The only problem is that it is too much information, a situation more opaque than too little information; but even that doesn't matter because there are many types of software for data-mining, and it is always possible to monitor specifically a person.
The police, or any agency with access to phone records, can
monitor all of a particular person's calls with automatic voice-recognition software that transcribes the calls.
Moreover, mobile phones can be activated - even when apparently switched off - to work as bugging devices, recording conversations with friends or business partners, and because of accurate location devices in mobiles, the authorities can even tell when and where the conversation took place.
All of this makes the old paraphernalia of bugging, wiretapping, and spy antennae completely outdated. The handy mobile phone can do it all for everybody. The technology is there, and in Italy, for instance, the periodic waves of revelations of this or that phone conversation between politicians or starlets are evidence that even a second-rate power can do it.
Certainly great powers must be able to do it even better. The limit to this is political, not technological. To what extent is a government willing to go to record - and more importantly, use in one way or another - all this information?
For democratic countries, the limit is privacy, since any less than discreet use of private information could lead to blackmail, limits on personal freedom, and thus a distortion of the society. Authoritarian countries can use mobile tapping to lean on people even more heavily.
But even authoritarian societies cannot implement total control over the population without evoking strong opposition. The limit in China for instance is that there is a political pact with the people: they are granted the social and personal freedom they want, provided they don't meddle in politics.
But in any case, an important government, if it wants to, can control the entire life of a person - even the quality of his or her sleep - taking away independence and privacy. Some governments, thanks to "Internet invasions", can even spy on people living in another country.
This is the general backdrop for the hotly debated issue of the cyber-wars between US and China and the controversy in America about the National Security Agency (NSA) tracking of American citizens. To further complicate things, the person who exposed the NSA plan, Edward Snowden, 29, flew to Hong Kong, giving the Chinese the occasion to say that they are not the only ones spying on their people.
Actually, there is more behind this frenzy for control of mobile phones than just spying on common people. Easier telecommunications access has provided an unprecedented platform for terrorists and all kinds of shady organizations.
Al-Qaeda would not have been possible without the Internet and mobile phones. Moreover, many security agencies state - and there is reason to believe them - that dozens of terrorist attacks have been thwarted and averted because of the new controls on telecommunications.
Furthermore, it is normal that these new electronic tools are used for spying on other countries and to steal state secrets. This is what countries have been doing since states were formed, and now they are doing it with the new instruments available. In theory, this is not different from anything in the past. In practice, it is a brand new world.
Rules of engagement during the Cold War were modified from the rules of engagement that existed between countries for centuries. But in cyberspace, there are no precedents to learn from, and it is very hard to decide where to draw the line.
This line is extremely important as the Internet is the ultimate weapon. It is the instrument by which one country can take control of another one without firing a shot, just by overrunning all the systems of the adversary, from nuclear arms to water and electricity.
Besides, the confrontation is skewed. The Americans may want to know about the Chinese military or politics, but the Chinese - or any other country technologically behind the US, for that matter - do not only want to know about the US military or politics, they may wish to bridge the technological gaps.
Beijing will want to steal US technological secrets, as there are more secrets to steal in America. Therefore, America is objectively more threatened by cyber-spying than anybody else because it has more to lose. It may spy even more on China than China on the US, but China has more to steal from the US. This may explain why the US is more concerned about cyber-spying than China or other countries.
However, stealing industrial secrets is not as safe as it may sound. Governments and corporations, aware of possible thefts, can plant fake or slightly distorted information, which can lead the eventual end-user to make mistakes or faulty products.
On the other hand, isolation can spur indigenous research in, say, China, a country with a lot of cash to invest in research and which might take a different path and then leapfrog American technology. Then for both the advanced and the advancing country, the best strategy would be to sell technology. That way, the US would get money, and it would give China an incentive not to steal.
Moreover, by selling technology to China, the US could better hook China to its technological development, minimize the risk of leapfrogging, and make money out of it. Russia, with far greater security concerns about China than America, does this, yet America doesn't.
In the context of a grand agreement on technological transfer and cyber-security, personal security for people's privacy could also be better guaranteed. The US and China, less concerned about one another's attacks, could scale back the level of control over their own people and could agree on a code of conduct to better respect people's privacy.
Conversely, heightened animosity between the two great powers will increase the level of security in both countries and thus on their respective peoples, who in some cases may end up being spied on by the security agencies of more than one country.
Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore. His e-mail is email@example.com