The United States: Unchecked surveillance empire

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The United States is notorious for its cyber record. Just ask the National Security Agency (NSA), which in 2013 suffered the biggest leak in its history when Edward Snowden, a former CIA contractor, walked out with a vast trove of secret documents.

A huge slogan board stands in front of the U.S. Capitol building during a protest against government surveillance in Washington D.C., capital of the United States, on Oct. 26, 2013. (Xinhua/Fang Zhe)

Snowden disclosed to the press details of extensive internet and phone surveillance by American intelligence. As the scandal widened, multiple media outlets revealed that NSA tapped directly into the servers of internet firms to track online communication in a surveillance program known as Prism.

A decade later, it's the Pentagon in the limelight this time. A set of highly classified documents from the department were leaked online in recent weeks, in an apparent security breach that revealed U.S. intelligence gathering on some of its key allies. South Korea, one of those affected, has played down any possibility of tension, reiterating its "strong" ties with America.

Those documents also reportedly include military assessments on the Ukraine crisis and CIA reports on a range of global issues. The embarrassing leak has endangered intelligence methods, exposed American strategy and undermined trust among U.S. allies, CNBC quoted former defense department officials and intelligence experts as saying.

Surveillance obsession

For years, Washington has been spying on the world through electronic eavesdropping and communication interception, with the targets ranging from what it called "strategic competitors" to its European partners.

Anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks in 2015 released a trove of documents titled "Target Tokyo" detailing systematic mass surveillance the agency undertook of Japanese politicians, ministries and corporations over a number of years.

According to the documents, America had gleaned intimate details of internal Japanese deliberations on trade-related issues, including agricultural imports and trade disputes and positions.

European leaders should not be surprised, either. The Danish state broadcaster DR reported in 2021 that the NSA used a partnership with Denmark's foreign intelligence unit to spy on senior officials of neighbouring countries, including then German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The findings are the result of a 2015 internal investigation in the Danish Defence Intelligence Service into NSA's role in the partnership, DR said.

According to the investigation, which covered the period from 2012 to 2014, the NSA used Danish information cables to spy on senior officials in Sweden, Norway, France and Germany.

China has been a target too. In September 2022, China's National Computer Virus Emergency Response Center and cybersecurity company 360 respectively released investigation reports on the NSA attacks on China's Northwestern Polytechnical University with aeronautics and space research programs. The reports indicated that the agency's Tailored Access Operations unit mounted hundreds of thousands malicious cyberattacks targeting Chinese objectives.

"No rules"

The United States is sparing no effort to militarize cyberspace, develop offensive cyber capabilities, and create systematic cyberattack platforms. In 2017, cyberspace was officially listed alongside the sea, land, air, and space as the "fifth domain" of the U.S. military.

The aim is thinly veiled: to maintain America's hegemony. Analysts say that cyber warfare is one of the tools used in its "hybrid warfare." Like economic sanctions, terrorist activities, psychological warfare, and military actions, it is a means by which the United States interferes in other countries and achieves its own political goals.

In seeking its own absolute security, the United States flagrantly violates the sovereignty of other countries' cyberspace and undermines their information security. This seriously hinders the efforts of the international community to maintain cybersecurity and data security, disrupts the international order in cyberspace, and undermines global strategic stability.

Andrey Krutskikh, former director of the Department of International Information Security at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that the United States and other Western countries are militarizing cyberspace, attempting to turn it into a stage for interstate confrontation, which exacerbates the risk of direct military conflict and can lead to unpredictable consequences.

Speaking of "Target Tokyo," Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, said the revelations should not come as a surprise, given the track record of the United States as a global surveillance superpower.

"In these documents we see the Japanese government worrying in private how much or how little to tell the United States, in order to prevent undermining of its climate change proposal or its diplomatic relationship," Assange said in a statement.

"And yet we now know that the United States heard everything and read everything, and was passing around the deliberations of Japanese leadership to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK. The lesson for Japan is this: do not expect a global surveillance superpower to act with honor and respect. There is only one rule: there are no rules."

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