Spy versus spy and high tech gizmos

From secure manhole covers to Internet tracking systems, NSA has an arsenal of patents

By Latha Jishnu
Published: Saturday 15 March 2014

imageEarly in February, the Chaos Computer Club (CCC) filed a criminal complaint against the German government for helping foreign intelligence organisations, the National Security Agency (NSA) and the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), to spy on Germans and thus violating the citizens’ right to privacy. CCC had teamed up with the International League for Human Rights (ILMR) to file the complaint with the German Federal Prosecutor General’s office. It made me sit up. Who were these people?

CCC it turns out is Europe’s largest association of hackers and they claim that for over 30 years have been providing “information about technical and societal issues, such as surveillance, privacy, freedom of information, hacktivism, data security and many other interesting things around technology and hacking issues”. They also claimed they were “the most influential hacker collective in Europe”. It seemed just the pedigree required for taking on the German government for a number of illegal activities.

CCC accused “US, British and German secret agents, their supervisors, the German Minister of the Interior as well as the German Chancellor of illegal covert intelligence activities, of aiding and abetting of those activities, by cooperating with the electronic surveillance of German citizens.” The question that this action sparked was what kind of technology did the super-secretive NSA have that could beat the most powerful hackers?

An online search reveals that the omnipresent and omnipotent NSA has a pretty interesting arsenal of technology to help it monitor millions of people, billions of phone calls and governments across the globe. Some of its inventions are as cute as any dreamed up by old school Ian Fleming and more recent spy fiction writers. Others are super-sophisticated Internet surveillance equipment more in line with the US agency’s covert monitoring operations. But what’s available on the Internet could be just a partial list since not all NSA patents are likely to be in the public domain, according to some analysts.

What do we have on NSA’s patents? There’s one for what is called a super shredder, another for the ultimately secure manhole cover, and others for sophisticated methods of location tracking on the Internet, etc. My vote though is for traditional spyware such as the super paper shredder. In this system the residue of individually shredded pages are collected in multiple collection bins for disposal, which ensures that no single collection bin contains the residue of an entire page. To foil any persistent counterspies, the contents of all the collection bins are disposed of at geographically dispersed locations and at differing times. Neat, of course, but did this call for a patent?

And why would NSA be interested in something like a manhole cover? The reason is that telecommunications equipment is increasingly being housed in underground vaults and conduits. Since the ordinary manholes are not tamper-proof, as they certainly are not in India, NSA had devised a cover that has two layers and one of which can be padlocked. Here is what the patent filing says: “Typically, the manhole opening consists of an annular frame attached to the telecommunications vault below grade. A circular disk provides a top cover to seal the annular frame from the elements and intrusion by people and animals.” Wow!

More in line with its hallmark snooping activities that whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed in all its perfidy is its 2005 patent for location tracking on the Internet. This is a system to track down a user’s physical location on electronically switched dynamic communications networks, such as the Internet, by measuring the communication lag time between two addresses. NSA calls it a “method for geolocating logical network addresses” in its claim filed in 2000.

Patenting for the NSA is going to be a priority. One reason is its high-sounding claim, made on its website that patent protection would allow NSA to license its technology. This would bring in “funds to support further research and promotes economic development since many of the technologies developed by NSA not only satisfy mission requirements, but also have great potential for commercial use.” It, therefore, plans on taking “a more aggressive and proactive approach to patents than in the past”, one reason being to avoid what it calls “nuisance lawsuits”.

In true spy versus spy fashion–remember the satirical cult magazine Mad?–German Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced the setting up of a European communications network as part of a broad counter-espionage offensive to fix NSA and GCHQ. But media reports say NSA’s phone and Internet surveillance operation in Germany is the biggest in Europe. Thanks to NSA’s tie-up with GCHQ, it has direct access to undersea cables carrying transatlantic communications between Europe and the US. Merkel would need more than smart manhole covers to get the better of NSA.

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