Today’s not a good morning to wake up as an American diplomat. The weekend’s WikiLeaks disclosure of covert communications has revealed some strange tech plots surrounding world figures – Bluetooth bugs implanted in prisoners. DNA gathering. UN stalking. Weird stuff.
Bluetooth Human Tracking Implants
First up – injecting released Guantanamo Bay prisoners with internal tracking devices, so that their movements could be “tracked with Bluetooth” – a (somewhat crackpot) idea cooked up by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. The rationale? “This was done with horses and falcons.” Ah, the old Hey, it works with animals approach. Forget the fact that Bluetooth would never be a viable means of tracking someone around the globe – or that the idea itself is immensely ominous. White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan demurred, replying politely “horses don’t have good lawyers,” and that the idea probably wouldn’t fly in US courts.
Secret African DNA Gathering
Another tracking strategy came from the US itself – aimed toward prominent African military and political figures. In one leaked wire, diplomats are directed to collect pertinent information on their African colleagues:
“e-mail listings; internet and intranet ‘handles’, internet e-mail addresses, web site identification-URLs; credit card account numbers; frequent flyer account numbers; work schedules, and other relevant biographical information.”
That might sound a bit invasive to you or me, but really, it’s what diplomats are being paid to do, as PJ Crowley – US Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs – says himself, “Diplomats collect information that shapes our policies and actions. Diplomats for all nations do the same thing.” So this isn’t anything out of the ordinary.
What is a bit odd are the rest of the instructions – diplomats are asked to gather “fingerprints, facial images, DNA, and iris scans”. How exactly a diplomat is supposed to gather such genetic and biometric information isn’t explained. Hair grabbed off a brush? Toenail clippings? Mouth swab sneak attack?
Keeping Techie Tabs on the UN
Perhaps more dubiously, biometric information was also requested for members of the UN – including prominent US allies and Security Council members such as France and the UK. The biometric directive – and the term “biometric” remains ambiguous here – even extended to leadership within ostensibly benign organisations, such as the Director General of the WHO, head of UNAIDS, and the Pan American Health organisation. Why the State Department would want iris scans of these people goes unexplained – and again, how much of this information gathering is simply diplomatic business as usual is a mystery to those outside of the diplomatic establishment.
Biometric sweeping, however, was only half the story. The same State Department edict asks diplomats to swipe “passwords” and “personal encryption keys” of key UN officials, as well as details on “commercial and private VIP networks used for official communications.” Whether or not this constitutes spying – a charge Crowley has already denied – is ambiguous. But we doubt anyone at the UN would be pleased knowing the US was tracking their passwords and private communications. On the other hand, every diplomat in the world could be receiving similar wires from the motherland – the WikiLeaks dump is a one-sided revelation.
It’ll take days (and maybe much longer) to gauge the significance of these directives – though the “diplomatic” aspect of diplomacy is clearly less pristine than the word connotes.
Photo by Jorbasa