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Is the NSA spying on your conversations?

26 May 2014, 10:16 Gicharu Mathigu

Nairobi - Just how credible are claims that the National Security Agency is spying on Kenya’s electronic signals? This is what many Kenyans are asking themselves when they send an email, make a phone call or even message a friend on their favourite social media platforms. The answer is frightening as recent evidence confirms that the NSA is doing exactly that.

This realization was only made possible by the NSA whistle blower, Edward Snowden, who has outed the Agency’s covert and borderline illegal activities since late last year. Snowden leaked top secret files from the NSA and its British equivalent, the GCHQ, which detail an ongoing labyrinth of electronic spying of mammoth proportions, taken straight from a James Bond movie.   
The birth of Big Brother
These files reveal secret US government programs spearheaded by the NSA to covertly collect data from any conceivable electronic signal on the face of the earth. This is no exaggeration. The 9/11 attack served as the primordial soup from which the NSA surveillance dragnet evolved.

After the attack, the US intelligence body was heavily criticized for failing to detect the attacks. The result of this criticism was presidential directive to establish a monolithic intelligence network to gather signal intelligence across the globe, or SIGNET as it is known in spy circles.  

Early 2002 saw the NSA birth a program codenamed STELLAR WIND aimed at gathering SIGINT from terrorism suspects. STELLAR WIND quickly spiralled out of control and the Agency started tapping telephone conversations, intercepting emails, online chats and just about any message that transmitted on the Internet. It was essentially an uncontrollable monster that knew no bounds.

STELLAR WIND in its quest to gather all electronic signals done spawned several other covert programs. The PRISM program is perhaps the most famous, due to its huge impact felt across the globe. According to the Snowden files, the PRISM algorithm sources data from servers from tech giants such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Apple, as well as the worldwide fibre optic cables. The companies have reportedly allowed NSA unfettered access to their servers that house data of all their users.
With the data, the NSA was able to achieve ‘contact chaining’. Contact chaining is linking a data gathered on a user to construct a social graph of relations between users, what messages they exchange and how often. This particular function allows the NSA to extend its search to ‘two or three hops’ when searching for a terrorist. This basically means that the Agency is able to ‘see’ every possible contact a terrorism suspect may have links with.

For example, if you talk to a banker who consequently handles money transfer for a terrorism suspect, to the NSA, you become a person of interest on the ‘two or three hops’ rule. Mathematically, a large portion of people under NSA surveillance will fall in the third hop, even if they are innocent. This means that right now, the NSA may have created a relationship between you and a terror suspect, and all online activity is under even closer scrutiny.

Cat and Mouse with the Chinese
The NSA has also engaged in cyber espionage with the Chinese. In fact, the NSA and their Chinese equivalent play cat and mouse every day, trying to outdo each other. Recent reports from the Chinese government stated that the NSA actively attacked Huawei, a telecom manufacturing giant. It is widely believed that the NSA successfully infiltrated the company’s network where it proceeded to install backdoors on devices manufactured by the company.

These backdoors in theory allow the NSA to access infected devices at any time and gather data from them, or use them as a launch pad for attacks. The claims however are not supported by the Snowden files. However, the fact that he US actively discourages use of Huawei products within its borders suggests that there is more than meets the eye.

The Chinese on the other hand, will not touch Microsoft’s Windows 8 Operating System with a 10 foot pole. They have banned the use of Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system within its government offices. They claim that the operating system has deliberate vulnerabilities and backdoors allowing anyone with knowledge of their existence to access such systems and manipulate them.

How it all ties in with Kenya
So how does the above relate to possible NSA snooping in Kenya? Well, Kenya is connected to the rest of the world through a fibre optic cable. The Kenyan consumer connects to the Internet through Internet Service Providers who rely on these optic cables. If the NSA has tapped these fibre optic cables, then it is privy to any communication within them.

Of most concern to Kenyans is the revelation that Orange, the third largest mobile service operator in the country, actively shares data of its 26 million customers across the world with intelligence communities. Data gathered from the Snowden files indicate that the French company has furnished France’s General Directorate of the External Security (DGSE), the French equivalent of the NSA, with user data gathered from its global network.

One can only assume that the DGSE shares the information with the NSA.

This close and collaborative relationship between the telecom company and the DGSE spans across thirty odd years.

Surprisingly, Orange threatened to sue the NSA over allegations that the spy institution hacked an underground fibre optic cable owned by Orange and 15 other companies.

Another vector the NSA may apply to listen in on Kenyan conversations is through Huawei technology deployed in the country.

Huawei devices such as phones, modems, and routers account for a significant number of devices in the country.

If the NSA managed to install backdoors in their operating systems, these devices actively send data to the NSA.

Safaricom, the biggest mobile service provider in the country has a large portion of its core infrastructure running on Huawei devices.

Going by our earlier assumption, all communication that goes through Safaricom is easily accessed and read by the NSA.

It would therefore seem that the giant spy machine that is the NSA has the world on its palms.

In a world that is continuously reliant on technology, this prospect should be enough to send chills down any free tingling person’s spine as it spells the end of privacy as we know it.

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