Revelations of widespread data mining by the National Security Agency may be sending shock waves across America and Europe, where digital privacy concerns have been mounting in recent years.
But the disclosure of the NSA's efforts to gather information from companies like Google, Yahoo, and Verizon came as little shock to foreign diplomats here at U.N. headquarters -- even though many members of the Security Council are uniquely vulnerable to American surveillance sweeps, because they rely on commercial email systems. Secretary General Ban Ki moon, a former South Korean foreign minister who likely relied on spies during his years in government, has shown little interest in weighing in on the controversy, according to U.N.-based diplomats.
For years, those diplomats say, they have taken it for granted that their phone calls, emails, and social media interactions are being monitored by spy agencies from the United States, China, Russia, and many other countries.
"In our view it's normal," Atoki Ileka, the Democratic Republic of the Congo's former U.N. envoy, told Turtle Bay in a telephone interview from Paris, where he currently serves as his country's ambassador. "It's not just a U.S. thing, or Russian, or French. It's common in all countries; spies going through our web sites, emails. It's something we are used to and living through."
Several U.N. based diplomats and officials interviewed for this story said they shared similar expectations -- that most of their electronic and digital communications are being monitored by friendly and unfriendly governments.
"I think we all assume all of our emails are being monitored by all sorts of countries," said one senior U.N. official, who like most others interviewed for this piece spoke by telephone or communicated by email on the condition of anonymity.
Another top U.N. official echoed that sentiment, adding that he had not heard that any of his colleagues had responded to the current surveillance uproar by cancelling their accounts with Yahoo or any of the other American service providers that reportedly cooperated with the American intelligence agency. "People are too electronically engaged in the web to quit it," the official said. Indeed, a senior East European diplomat who routinely communicates with me by email sent me a message on another topic this morning from a personal Gmail account.
Still, the latest revelations have highlighted particular vulnerabilities for poor countries that lack the financial wherewithal to secure their email communications. For instance, a review of the email lists for U.N. Security Council political councilors -- the diplomats who organize the council's daily business -- shows that countries like Azerbaijan, Rwanda, Russia, and Pakistan communicate with their colleagues on commercial Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo accounts. Chinese diplomats communicate with their council partners through a combination of government email addresses and Gmail. In contrast, the United States, Britain, and France communicate through government emails, and they send encrypted email cables to capital through secure lines.
Electronic espionage has had a place of pride in U.N. history since the organization's birth, according to an account in Stephen C. Schlesinger's history of the U.N. founding. At the opening U.N. conference in San Francisco in 1945, U.S. Secretary of State Edward Stettinius routinely reviewed the secret diplomatic cables sent by his colleagues to foreign capitals. The U.S. Army Signal Security Agency, the forerunner of the National Security Agency, forced commercial telegraph companies to hand over hundreds of pages of secret diplomatic messages.
Even in modern times, U.N.-based espionage operations involving U.S., Russian, or nationals from other countries periodically come to light. The first major round of Wikileaks cables published by the Guardian and the New York Times included a cable that instructed American diplomats to collect information on their colleagues. In the run up to the Iraq war, a British newspaper reported that the National Security Agency had ordered an eavesdropping "surge" on their telephones in order to learn their voting positions on a resolution that would pave the way for a U.S.- led war against Iraq. "The fact is, this sort of thing goes with the territory," Pakistan's then U.N. ambassador, Munir Akram, told me at the time. "You'd have to be very naive to be surprised."
In the wake of such revelations, said one European diplomat, some diplomats take precautionary actions, for instance limiting their email communications to secure government accounts. But over time most drop their guard, exchanging notes through government or commercial email accounts alike. The feeling, the diplomat said, is that the United Nations, with its 193 member states, holds few secrets. On the most sensitive matters, communications are passed on by secure emails, word of mouth, exchanged in document form by hand, or made available for "eyes only" within the secure confines of a foreign mission.
Still, while many diplomats are cavalier they say their political counterparts back home are not, given the rising public backlash against American digital giants like Facebook and Google. In Eastern Europe, the scene of intensive eavesdropping during the Cold War, the latest revelations have only increased concern about the loss of privacy. In Germany, for instance, Google faced intense opposition to its digital street mapping program. Today, a digital stroll down some of Berlin's main boulevards reveals pixilated buildings.
U.N. officials said that the U.N.'s top human rights official, Navi Pillay, is considering issuing a statement criticizing American surveillance practices. But here at U.N. headquarters the top brass have hardly taken note of the latest disclosure. The issue, said one U.N. official, is not on the "radar screen" of U.N. policy makers in New York, "probably further proof that we operate in a bubble, cut off from the real world."
If further proof were needed, the official delivered those remarks to Turtle Bay by email. Even PRISM, the official noted, "doesn't seem to stop us being indiscreet."
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