Spies, Spies and More Spies

“Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to implant a secret cyber-wiretap on the World Wide Web. Then you must search a giant’s trash for proof of a conspiracy against the government. Finally, you are to launch a spy satellite to eavesdrop on the telephone and e-mail communications of an entire continent.”

No, this is not the opening of the latest summer blockbuster movie. Spying is no longer a cloak-and-dagger enterprise reserved for military and government officials — it is now all in a day’s work for some of the biggest players in the new Internet economy.

What’s a Satellite or Two among Friends?

Earlier this week, the European Union (EU) Parliament set up a committee to look into the operations of the Echelon satellite and eavesdropping network, a move that fell just shy of a direct accusation that the United States is conducting electronic espionage of EU companies.

Appointment of the “temporary committee” by the EU Parliament came shortly after the launch of a French judicial inquiry into alleged American spying.

Echelon is a satellite intelligence network capable of intercepting phone and e-mail traffic from across the globe. The system is operated jointly by the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

The EU committee is charged with determining Echelon’s legality, and whether “European business interests are being or might be harmed by the system by way of economic espionage,” according to published reports.

A U.S. official insisted there are adequate controls on the system and that no intelligence is ever passed along to American companies, the report said, but some members of the Parliament were not satisfied with the plan for a committee to study the issue and demanded a full blown probe.

A Little Spying among Giants

Two high-tech giants are embroiled in another espionage controversy with implications for the U.S. government. Last week, Oracle Corp. (Nasdaq NM: ORCL) admitted to hiring a detective firm to investigate groups that came out in public support of Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq NM: MSFT) during its antitrust battle with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Oracle, the world’s second largest software firm, acknowledged that it hired Investigation Group International to probe the Independent Institute (II), National Taxpayers Union (NTU) and the Association for Competitive Technology (ACT).

Previous media reports stated that investigators attempted to bribe janitors to let them rifle through company trash cans. Oracle said that “both the Independent Institute and the National Taxpayers Union were misrepresenting themselves as independent advocacy groups when in fact their work was funded by Microsoft for the express purpose of influencing public opinion in favor of Microsoft during its antitrust trial.”

Microsoft came back snarling, saying that Oracle’s disclosure amounted to evidence that Microsoft’s competitors were themselves making a concerted effort to influence the government.

“This is dramatic proof that Microsoft competitors have been funding and orchestrating a massive PR and lobby campaign against Microsoft in an effort to unfairly tarnish the company’s image and generate government intervention in a competitive and healthy industry,” Microsoft spokesperson Mark Murray said. “It’s a sad day and an embarrassment for Oracle and all its employees. I think Oracle has lost a lot of credibility today.”

Average Joe, Too

But high-tech titans and government agencies are not the only ones involved in the new wave of spying activities. Early this year, controversial Internet ad company DoubleClick roped millions of regular people into its web through its infamous practice of using “cookies” to track the movements of Net surfers and then linking the information to names and addresses.

Michigan Attorney General Jennifer M. Granholm accused DoubleClick of the equivalent of cyber-spying, saying, “Every time you use the Internet, DoubleClick is placing a bar code on your back — a user I.D. — so that it can identify your interests, habits and preferences.”

“Because DoubleClick secretly implants additional surveillance files as you surf the Internet, DoubleClick is continually adding detailed personal information about you to its databanks. The average consumer has no idea that their online movements are being spied upon; this amounts to little more than a secret cyber-wiretap,” Granholm added.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the New York State Attorney General’s office also launched investigations of DoubleClick’s advertising practices, and the company was soon faced with five lawsuits for invasion of privacy.

Internet’s Irresistable Data Mountain

Spying may be on its way to becoming a new international pastime. Take, for example, the musician known as “Scanner” who spends most of his time eavesdropping on personal cell phone conversations and recording them to use as samples in his tracks. He says he is most attracted to the conversations that are mundane, such as a wife asking her husband if he would like a ham roll for supper.

Scanner seems to want to listen in just because he can. Because the voices are out there to be heard.

Perhaps it is the vastness of the data generated by new technology that begs for interference with it. The odd cyber-spy may have a particular agenda, but most of them seem compelled to hack into databases for the same reason that mountaineers climb Everest.

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