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A Cyber Invasion

How the NSA Infiltrated Mexico’s Computers

by LAURA CARLSEN

The New York Times published another article Jan. 14, 2014 based on NSA internal information provided by former security consultant and whistleblower Edward Snowden and once again Mexico features prominently as a target for massive U.S. espionage. The article begins by noting the characteristics and extent of this program:

The National Security Agency has implanted software in nearly 100,000 computers around the world that allows the United States to conduct surveillance on those machines and can also create a digital highway for launching cyberattacks.

While most of the software is inserted by gaining access to computer networks, the N.S.A. has increasingly made use of a secret technology that enables it to enter and alter data in computers even if they are not connected to the Internet, according to N.S.A. documents, computer experts and American officials.

Mexico is among only a handful of nations mentioned specifically in the new York Times story.

Among the most frequent targets of the N.S.A. and its Pentagon partner, United States Cyber Command, have been units of the Chinese Army, which the United States has accused of launching regular digital probes and attacks on American industrial and military targets, usually to steal secrets or intellectual property. But the program, code-named Quantum, has also been successful in inserting software into Russian military networks and systems used by the Mexican police and drug cartels, trade institutions inside the European Union, and sometime partners against terrorism like Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan, according to officials and an N.S.A. map that indicates sites of what the agency calls “computer network exploitation.”

In the article where the Dutch publication nrc.nl reported the story two months earlier, a map of “Computer Network Exploitation” shows heavy concentrations of operations in Brazil and Venezuela, as well as Mexico.

The most recent revelations complicate even more the Obama administration’s task of explaining its spy programs. The world awaits that explanation. Obama is between a rock and a hard place on this one. If he defends the entire program, he is setting an international norm that violates basic principles of individual right to privacy, diplomatic respect, and rules of international trade and investment regarding inside information on bidding and other negotiations. The U.S. government would no longer have a leg to stand on in criticizing precisely these same kind of operations coming from other countries, particularly China.

On the other hand, if he rolls back parts of the program, it would be an admission of excess and a setback for Pentagon hawks who equate security with a system where the U.S. government micromanages the world. It would also be an implicit vindication of Snowden, who the Obama has portrayed as a common criminal.

The surveillance review panel assigned to review NSA operations testified before the Senate this week, questioning current practices. Its December report sharply criticized many of the practices and urged curbs. Obama is likely to support some of those limits. Congress, under the leadership of Patrick Leahy, has called for curbs and will be responsible for any new regulations regarding limits.

It may end up being pressure from the private sector, rather than principles, that imposes limits though. Silicon Valley has demanded curbs due to fears that its products and services are losing market after leaks showing that U.S. companies are working with the NSA and like a global Trojan horse deliver hidden espionage equipment.

From my perspective as a researcher, human rights activist and international analyst, this is the only principled position and restraining NSA programs is a political, diplomatic and ethical necessity. Snowden has given us an opportunity to confront a threat to our rights and democracy we did not know existed before his bold decision to make it public. Now it is up to us to pressure for changes and express our indignation at the secret decision of the government to invade our lives through the computers and telephones that form an indispensable part of our daily lives.

While we expect some concession in terms of limits on domestic information harvesting, we will probably see very little change on the international front. The political cost for Obama and members of Congress comes from constituents and businesses affected by the leaks.

These also affect foreign citizens and governments, which seems to already have implications for U.S. exporters. Brazil’s decision in December to give an estimated $4.5 billion jet fighter contract to Saab after Boeing had wrangled for it for years, was seen as influenced by that nation’s indignation over U.S. spying on hits government and specifically President Dilma Rousseff.

Presumably, today’s statements from Obama on the future of the NSA program will not be a substitute for the specific explanation that President Peña Nieto has said Obama promised Mexico. Leaks regarding spying on Peña Nieto when he was presidential candidate and former president Felipe Calderon caused a splash here.

My opinion is that the demand for an explanation from the Obama administration is nothing more than a face-saving move by Peña Nieto. Obama has already not only admitted to the programs revealed by Snowden, but defended them.

Mexico does not need an explanation from President Obama. It needs a president who defends the dignity and independence of Mexico by drawing a diplomatic line that distinguishes between cooperation and intervention.

Laura Carlsen is director of the CIP Americas Program www.cipamericas.org