Seeking Privacy in an Age of Increased Eavesdropping | Print Version
by Harry Valentine*
Le Québécois Libre, February 15, 2014, No 319

The practice of eavesdropping is as old as the world's oldest profession. In very early times, eavesdropping involved a witness on the scene. Later, the methods of the eavesdropping trade included using telescopes, eavesdropping on telegraph messages, tapping telephone lines, using hidden cameras, cameras with telephoto lenses and hidden microphones. Organized syndicates often developed their own secret language and special codes to reduce the risk of eavesdroppers gaining any valuable information. Syndicate members would often recognize each other through subtle body language or through a series of seemingly innocuous gestures that suggested syndicate membership.

During an earlier time when only a very small number of people understood Morse code or semaphore signals, the early post office respected the privacy of private communication despite the telegraph office knowing the precise content of urgent communications. Today, with mass telecommunications among massive numbers of private people, government agencies in some countries seek to monitor the content of such communication, using a modern version of telephone tapping technology. However, an unregulated free market has ways of discovering, developing and providing technology to ensure telecommunications privacy.

While one sector of the market has provided specific eavesdropping technology to private and government spy agencies, another sector of the market simultaneously seeks to provide privacy from eavesdropping. Spy agencies are aware that some people and organizations operate computers without telecommunications capability—that is, computers that nobody can hack. But such computers may emit faint radio signals that spy agencies look for in order to access and extract information. People who value privacy are seeking ways to ensure privacy from foreign government spy agencies and competing commercial enterprises.

People who are familiar with radio telecommunications are aware that conventional commercial radio waves are often impossible in bowl-shaped mountain valleys, inside large mountain caves with small entrances, and inside long tunnels. While satellite radio waves are available in bowl-shaped valleys, they do not penetrate inside mountain caves and long tunnels that are without provision for wireless telecommunications. While offline computers located inside mountain caves may generate radio waves when they process information, those radio waves may simply bounce around inside the caves for decades.

Commercial enterprises located in developing economies that seek to develop new products and services for the market may process information using computers that are linked on an internal network and without connection to the outside world. They may seek to prevent foreign competitors from gaining access to any radio signals that their computer systems generate by locating their computer systems deep underground or inside mountain caves. Innovators in a free market could develop a variety of alternate methods to thwart outsiders from accessing computer-generated radio waves and any valuable commercial information they might contain.

While modern computers operate on electronic signals, there have in the past been crude information processing devices that operated mechanically, using mechanical input signals. Other devices have used hydraulic methods by which to process information. There was interest some ten years ago in developing computers that operate on optical signals, with some working proof-of-concept prototype machines built. The threat of spy technology being able to access computer-generated radio signals could prompt renewed interest in optical computers that emit no radio waves from organizations that value the privacy of their information, especially information that has commercial value.

While using highly encrypted telecommunication codes ensure a measure of privacy, several governments forbid the use of such codes to the point of demanding access to the codes. In the history of telecommunications, innovators have developed ingenious methods of ensuring privacy. A recent CBC documentary on poverty in South America revealed that in the poverty-ridden favelas of Brazil, for example, groups of kites would occasionally appear in the sky and disappear, possibly to send a message. Despite the very public display of kites, the colour schemes, colour arrangements, and movements of the kites would have formed the telecommunications code known only to a very small number of people.

A commercial enterprise may suspect a foreign government of spying on their product development information for the benefit of a politically well-connected foreign competitor. They may either house all their innovation staff at a central location and use a single central computer, or connect vast numbers of standalone, radio-shielded computers on an extended intranet. If the company operates multiple innovation offices, they would need to transmit highly confidential product development information between remote offices. Dividing the information into a jigsaw puzzle format allows multiple computers on an intranet to connect briefly to the outside world.

Each computer would transmit a portion of highly encrypted information through from certain email addresses to certain other, different email addresses that may be linked to an extensive intranet, perhaps involving several dozen transmissions among several million on a telecommunications network. An industrial spy would then need to look for the equivalent of several hundred pieces of a needle among a large number of haystacks that includes decoys. The company's receiving intranet would relay the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle to an in-house computer that would reassemble the entire transmission into usable information.

While governments claim that their eavesdropping is only aimed at protecting national security, the door is wide open for them to tap into foreign commercial and research information for the benefit of politically well-connected local industries. This might be especially true for nations that have undergone severe economic downturns involving factory closures, massive industrial layoffs and high rates of unemployment. Disgruntled locals could then prompt their governments to seek ways of providing new industrial and employment opportunities, including using the spy agency to access new product innovation information from foreign competitors—government promises to use their eavesdropping powers for good notwithstanding.

* Harry Valentine is a free-marketeer living in Eastern Ontario.