09 02 2011

Biometric data and Frankenstein programmes

Most of the cables from US diplomatic staff to their bosses in Washington are boring, and one wonders how they can be brought up in the media as “revelations”, when they are just stating the well-known points of view of the American Government. Iran's government is nasty, Hugo Chávez is a dictator (even if they add that he is not stupid) etc. - yawn! Then there comes some spice, when they talk badly about close allies, as the French President Nicholas Sarkozy or the Italien PM Berlusconi, but frankly – nothing surprising. It is of course funny to see the red ears in Washington, but news?

There is a bit more fun, when they reveal some details of their relationship with their allies.This is mostly local stuff, with mostly local repercussions. As when they confirm the extravagant lifestyle of the Tunisian ex-first lady – not that this was news for the Tunisians, but it is always interesting to see it on paper from one of the closest allies of the regime.

In Denmark, the hitherto most interesting thing coming out of the “Wikileaks” is related to the use of Danish territory as part of the US “rendition” programme, where illegal detainees have been transported between secret prisons in different parts of the world. The US Ambassador reported to his superiors that the Danish Government had asked for explanations, and at the same time two named high-ranking officials from the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs had told him that this request was for public use only, the whole thing would be hushed up as soon as possible. Surprised? No, not really That was what everybody was already guessing. But amusing anyway. Of course there are no consequences for the Government or the named officials.

Another curious episode took place in Honduras, where it actually had a very strong impact. In a letter to his superiors, the US Ambassador, Hugo Lorens, made a surprisingly detailed analysis of the legality of the coup against former President Manuel Zelaya. The letter concluded: “... the military and/or whoever ordered the coup fell back on what they knew -- the way Honduran presidents were removed in the past: a bogus resignation letter and a one-way ticket to a neighboring country. No matter what the merits of the case against Zelaya, his forced removal by the military was clearly illegal, and Micheletti's ascendance as "interim president" was totally illegitimate.“ To understand the immense embarrassment that this created, one has to take into account that Honduras historically has been virtually an American colony, and the words from the US Embassy carries a lot of weight in the political and economic elite, and it was exactly this powerful elite that had ousted President Zelaya. The reaction from the coup-makers was violent. Mr. Micheletti thus asked for the Ambassador to be declared “persona non grata”, but of course nobody in Honduras tells the American Ambassador when to leave. Again, amusing to look at, but not really news.

There are, however, a few cases where the cables are more disturbing. I would like to mention two of them.

The first is the revelation that Washington ordered its staff to spy on the UN leadership and the representations of the bigger nations represented in the Security Council: China, Russia, France and the UK. There is nothing wrong with common spying. All bigger countries do that to make sure they know the objectives of other leaders. But this went much further. As referred in the British Newspaper The Guardian, it called for detailed biometric information "on key UN officials, to include undersecretaries, heads of specialised agencies and their chief advisers, top aides to the Secretary General, heads of peace operations and political field missions, including force commanders". A parallel intelligence directive sent to diplomats in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi said biometric data included DNA, fingerprints and iris scans. Washington also wanted credit card numbers, email addresses, phone, fax and pager numbers and even frequent-flyer account numbers for UN figures and "biographic and biometric information on UN Security Council permanent representatives". Obviously the passwords would make it possible to break into the UN computer systems, but we can only guess, what the objective can have been for the biometric data.

The other cable, which has received very little attention or follow-up, is to the US Embassy in Paraguay, dated March 24, 2008. The cable “reports the results of a recent Washington review of reporting and collection needs for Paraguay”. Reading the cable, the American “information needs” seems to be quite extensive (much beyond general political intelligence and information related to terrorism, drug trafficking and money laundering) - obviously the information is planned to be used to spy on the leadership's communication, asking for IP addresses, user accounts and passwords.

But the really strange part comes in the section B of the cable. Paraguay was as that time heading for a Presidential Election, and the cable asks for detailed information on the contenders: “Biographic and financial information on all leading contenders, and especially on Minister of Education Blanca Ovelar, former Vice President Castiglioni, Lino Oviedo, and Fernando Lugo; and biometric data, to include fingerprints, facial images, iris scans, and DNA, on these individuals.” As it is known, Fernando Lugo went on to win the Presidency.

It should be remembered that these orders are signed by the Secretary of the State (Condolezza Rice or Hillary Clinton), so it is not the idea of some wacky mid-level intelligence officer. The question is, why the US is interested in this biometric data (similar data has been collected in several African countries as mentioned above). Why do they run around collecting DNA, fingerprints and iris scans of foreign (mostly third world) leaders? No surprise that they want user accounts and passwords so they can peer into their computers and e-mails. But what do they want to do with foreign Presidents' DNA or fingerprints?

This sounds as something taking out of a conspiracy theory Holywood movie (X-files?). Of course no explanation has been given from the State Department. And of course there are different guesses, but a search on the internet does not come up with any good explanation.

If we disregard some Frankenstein programme, one proposed explanation is that it is simply to be able to break into security systems based on fingerprints or iris scans. That is possible, but DNA?

Another explanation is that it is the invention of an inflated intelligence system, that has nothing better to do. As no one dare question the gathering of information to prevent terrorist attacks, with the risk of being suspected to be soft on terrorism, stupidities like these slip through. Not very convincing, but just possible.

A third suggestion is that the information can be used to blackmail foreign leaders. DNA and fingerprints can be used to gather intelligence on possible illicit activities of “these individuals”, as they are called in the cable, which can then be used against them if necessary. Not very convincing either, but also just possible.

But you are kept wondering if they perhaps do have some weird Frankenstein programme going on. In the (partly documentary) 2009 movie “Men who stare at goats”, which has the stated goal of exploring "the apparent madness at the heart of U.S. military intelligence," they say: "More of this is true than you would believe."

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Thorbjorn Waagstein

Thorbjørn Waagstein, Economist, PhD, since 1999 working as international Development Consultant in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

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