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Sunday, 30 April, 2000, 18:40 GMT 19:40 UK
Computer cloaks and digital daggers
Moorland antennae similar to those at Menwith Hill
By BBC News Online's Barry Neild

The announcement that the government is to spend 25m on a new internet surveillance centre capable of tracking and intercepting electronic communications is clear evidence that a new era of digital spying has been ushered in.

Once secret agents met at midnight in rain-soaked railway stations, carrying poison-tipped umbrellas issued in the dusty corridors of Whitehall.

Now the agents of espionage have abandoned their cloaks and daggers for computers that - provided they don't abandon them in tapas bars - give them unlimited access to the world wide web.

A good spy is no longer measured by their talent for slipping undetected across borders, but by their ability to crack the codes which offer entry into databases loaded with sensitive information.

The threat posed by these individuals is not to be taken lightly.

'Electronic Pearl Harbour'

No one realises this more than the US Government, which annually spends billions of dollars funding its own army of e-spies who sift through the vast global traffic of information passing through the web.

MI5, MI6 and GCHQ now recruit e-spies via the internet, and ideal candidates are more likely to be IT workers than Oxbridge graduates

Richard A Clarke, chairman of the US Government's chief counter-terrorism group, says that without adequate surveillance, the US is leaving itself open to an attack on the scale of an "electronic Pearl Harbour".

Last year Mr Clarke told the New York Times, "There is a real problem convincing people that there is a threat. Most people don't understand. Chiefs of big corporations don't even know what I'm talking about. They think I'm talking about a 14-year-old hacking into their Web sites.

"I'm talking about people shutting down a city's electricity, 911 systems, telephone networks and transportation systems. You black out a city, people die. Black out lots of cities, lots of people die. It's as bad as being attacked by bombs.

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"An attack on American cyberspace is an attack on the United States, just as much as a landing on New Jersey. The notion that we could respond with military force against a cyber-attack has to be accepted."

Evidence of the extent of this paranoia can be found, not in the technology-rich boulevards of Silicon Valley, but on remote moorland in North Yorkshire that is more James Herriott than James Bond.

Until recently, RAF Menwith Hill was not marked on any map or mentioned in any guide to the RAF. Officially, the biggest electronic surveillance centre in the world does not exist.

But drive along the A59 north of Harrogate and you cannot fail to notice 20 golf ball-shaped antennae, stretching out over 562 acres.

Data feeds

These "golf balls" feed the US National Security Agency (NSA) with the raw details of every electronic communication, ranging from highly sensitive commercial data to the inconsequential e-phemera.

This presence on the hard shoulder of the superhighway has not gone without criticism. An EU report published in 1999 laid bare the fact that US intelligence agents are able to read millions of confidential e-mails and other messages sent over the internet.

An attack on American cyberspace is an attack on the United States

Richard A Clarke
And it highlighted the fear that the information may be used for commercial espionage to give US companies an unfair advantage over their European rivals.

Back in Britain, both MI5, MI6 and GCHQ now recruit e-spies via the internet, and ideal candidates are more likely to be IT workers than Oxbridge graduates.

Fictional "spooks" are also finally coming to terms with the spying game's new rules.

Whereas James Bond was once pitted against creepy bald men wearing Nehru jackets and stroking fluffy felines, in Goldeneye he faced corrupt computer whizz-kids who harassed him by hunching over hardware and clattering keyboards.

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25 Apr 00 | UK
Spy guide on the net
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