Spying in the Caribbean: some thoughts and considerations
Following recent revelations of invasive and unauthorised US spying in the Bahamas, we are taking a closer look at the wider Caribbean, and highlighting some of the vulnerabilities and concerns that have been identified.
Last week, news outlets in the United States (US) were abuzz with reports that the National Security Agency (NSA) had been conducting spying activities in the Caribbean. Specifically, the organisation is alleged to have been “secretly intercepting, recording, and archiving the audio of virtually every cell phone conversation” in the Bahamas (Source: The Intercept).
According to news reports, the source of the intelligence is Edward Snowdon, for whom coincidentally, it is almost a year since his initial revelations. In summary, the NSA’s surveillance was being done without the consent of the Bahamian government. The agency was leveraging the relationship between the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bahamas to access, record and store communications to, from and within the Bahamas on its mobile/cellular network.
As at the time of publishing, it is understood that the NSA has not denied the claims. However, documents on the programme used to harvest the calls, code named SOMALGET, suggest that its objective in the Bahamas was to uncover “international narcotics traffickers and special-interest alien smugglers” (Source: ABC News). However, ABC News also reports that other documents indicate that the Bahamas was being used as a test bed for SOMALGET, to explore its capabilities and to fine-tune the programme.
Upon learning of the NSA’s spying activities, the Bahamas Government was understandably outraged with calls for a full investigation to be launched into the matter (Source: The Tribune). However, there has also been speculation that the previous government and the incumbent telecoms provider, the Bahamas Telecommunications Company, knew about (or cooperated in) the surveillance, which both parties have denied.
The Bahamas is not alone
Although much of the focus of this new round of allegations has been on the Bahamas, which the US State Department had stated was of little or no threat the US, The Intercept contends that the NSA has been monitoring telecoms networks in other countries. According to WikiLeaks, the NSA has been recording virtually every phone call made – similar to the Bahamas – in Afghanistan (Source: The Verge). Further it has been reported that monitoring progammes have been conducted in Mexico, the Philippines, and Kenya, but they were not as invasive as in the Bahamas, and was limited to stripping the metadata from the calls (Source: The Intercept).
Having said this, it is entirely possible that the NSA’s surveillance programmes in the Caribbean have not been limited to the Bahamas. Countries such as Jamaica, Haiti, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, among others, may be an even greater haven or channel than the Bahamas for “international narcotics traffickers and special-interest alien smugglers”. Hence the true breadth and depth of the NSA’s/US’ surveillance activities in the region, and the extent to which it might be done with the cooperation of national governments, is yet to be revealed.
Our China connection
Although narcotics and human trafficking has been reported as an impetus for the US’ spying activities overseas, Caribbean countries may also need to consider that their relationship with China might be a source of concerns to the US and might be a reason behind a range of covert activities in the region.
On our part, many Caribbean countries are highly dependent on China for financing, especially for capital-intensive project, as well as other forms of assistance. However, a recent area of concern has been the supply of computing equipment manufactured in China, as it has been accused of spying through those devices.
Over the past several months, the Government of the People’s Republic of China has either donated or supplied computing devices to Caribbean governments in countries such as the Bahamas, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago. However, Chinese brands, such as Lenovo, though a global player in the computing market, has been “banned by intelligence agencies around the world because of concerns over hardware exploits inserted into the production line by the manufacturer” (Source: Caribbean News Now).
Further, within the past few weeks, five Chinese hackers were indicted by a grand jury in the US “for cyber espionage and other offences directed at six entities in the US nuclear power, metals and solar products industries” (Source: Caribbean News Now). This recent development is again highlighting the potential security risk to Caribbean countries, and renewing the call for greater awareness and prudence on the part of our governments.
Data protection, privacy, transparency
In summary, and as noted earlier, it is unlikely that we will learn the full breadth and depth of the US’ surveillance programmes in the Caribbean, and the extent to which our governments have cooperated with the US. However, noting the increasing focus within the region on data protection and the right to privacy, we ought to appreciate the potential impact on consumer and investor confidence by these recent revelations.
Many Caribbean countries are trying to develop new industries, such as international financial services and businesses process outsourcing, to bolster their economies. Hence matters related to unauthorised access to data, and perhaps more importantly, the lack of transparency therein, could be deterrent to such businesses being established in the region, although on all other fronts we might be attractive for such investments.
In light of these and other considerations, Caribbean governments and regional organisations should be prepared to provide greater clarity on this issue, especially the extent to which, they are aware of, or have been cooperating or facilitating, spying activities in the region. Though such covert activities might be a necessary evil in today’s world, we may all still benefit from understanding the degree to which our privacy has been eroded.
Image credit: Danilo Rizzuti (FreeDigitalPhotos.net)