Germany in Spying Scandal: espionage reaching its apogee

Germany has become the latest country to become embroiled in a spying scandal, putting severe pressure on the usually unflappable Chancellor Angela Merkel. Having complained loudly about the National Security Agency (NSA) spying on Germany, Merkel is now being made to look like a hypocrite with the revelations that the BND – the German foreign intelligence agency – has been involved in illegal surveillance of both industrial and political entities in Europe.

It was revealed last year that the NSA was monitoring Merkel's phone
It was revealed last year that the NSA was monitoring Merkel’s phone

Espionage is, of course, as old as history itself. Sun-Tzu, probably the foremost military strategist of the ancient world, was a keen advocate of the use of spying. Why waste thousands of men and countless riches by sending vast unprepared armies against your enemy, when you can deploy spies to ascertain their strengths and weaknesses? Indeed, Sun-Tzu identified five types of spies:

1) Local spies – ordinary civilians inhabiting enemy territory

2) Inward spies – officials of the enemy

3) Converted spies – turning the enemy’s spies

4) Doomed spies – decoys creating open deception to mislead the enemy

5) Surviving spies – those that infiltrate the enemy camp and return

All of these methods are still employed in some form or another, although technological advancement means that the sophistication of electronic espionage is becoming increasingly difficult to counter. More worryingly for some people is that such methods are being used by countries to spy on their own citizens.

The Edward Snowden leaks caused a great furore in the USA and have subsequently done so in other countries by revealing the extent to which governments monitor every aspect of the their citizens’ lives for purported reasons of national security.

Snowden's leaks have proven a headache for international governments
Snowden’s leaks have proven a headache for international governments

Again, spying on one’s own people is not a new phenomenon. It has been happening at the local level for centuries. The church played a key role in developing networks of informants in Europe during the Middle Ages, reporting on the political and religious persuasions of their citizens. Spy rings have been used by governments for a plethora of reasons, whether it is to identify criminal activity, ascertain the wealth of the population for tax purposes or to root out critics and potential opponents. Often it is not the act of spying itself that causes moral outrage but the use of the information obtained from espionage.

What did the NSA do with all the data it collected on individuals with no recognisable link to terrorism or any other crime? What of the ‘commercial secrets’ it unravelled? The answer to these questions revolves heavily around the individuals with access to the data. Who are they? What are their personal motives? How can they gain? These questions have not changed over the years.

When our privacy is breached we want to hold someone accountable. As ordinary citizens we are not the enemy, people who our governments can mistrust and collect dossiers on. This no ordinary spying as Sun-Tzu saw it. The lack of transparency in the data collecting process of our government security agencies is what is most troubling. For the majority of people, who have absolutely nothing to hide, the thought that people are listening in on their conversations is not inherently problematic. After all, if such methods can prevent a terrorist attack then surely they are worth it?

What is done with the non-pertinent information – which may hold secrets of a totally different kind – is what disturbs us. If our government agencies collect and retain this information then what is stopping our ‘enemies’ from gaining access to such data through cyberattacks?

Cybersecurity must become a government priority if they continue to acquire vast amounts of personal data
Cybersecurity must become a government priority if they continue to acquire vast amounts of personal data

Collecting a vast array of data of our own citizens is an evolution in the history of espionage. Whilst designed to enhance our national security, the reverse could occur if our governments do not ensure the careful storage of relevant acquired data, and the destruction of anything left behind.

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Treasure Found off Madagascar: the legacy of William Kidd

As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitaniaanother relic of maritime history is making the news. American explorers have found the sunken treasure of famed pirate William Kidd off the coast of Madagascar. A solid silver bar has been raised to the surface and presented to the Madagascan president at a special ceremony, with hopes that more will follow.

The bar in question Source: Daily Mail
The bar in question
Source: Daily Mail

Kidd was born in Scotland in the mid-17th century and sailed as a privateer of the British crown for several years. In 1695, however, when commissioned to apprehend pirates disrupting the shipping of the British East India Company, Kidd turned rogue and took several ships and their cargo. At the same time, he mortally wounded William Moore, his gunner.

Unsurprisingly, the British did not take kindly to Kidd’s betrayal and an arrest warrant was issued. Finally surrendering in New York in 1699 – having been led to believe that he would receive a pardon – Kidd was returned to England for trial and subsequently found guilty of Moore’s murder and five counts of piracy. He was hanged at Wapping in 1701 (reputedly at the third attempt).

Kidd was hanged at Wapping, his corpse covered in tar and hung from a bridge to warn others against piracy Source: BBC
Kidd was hanged at Wapping, his corpse covered in tar and hung from a bridge to warn others against piracy
Source: BBC

With rumours of abundant stores of treasure deposited off Gardiners Island and Africa, Kidd attained a rather mythical status after death. Indeed, his exploits were probably overplayed and romanticised to an extent not consistent with his actual life. An apparent inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island has increased his popularity in the centuries since his execution.

Perhaps as interesting as Kidd’s life is that of the sunken vessel from which the silver has been retrieved. The Adventure Galley was fitted out in the Deptford Dockyards in 1696 and Kidd took it halfway around the world in search of legitimate plunder. Frustrated by his lack of success, he captured two British vessels off India in 1698 and brought them back to Madagascar. Here, the ship was reportedly scuttled due to its rotting hull.

Voyages of the Adventure  Galley
Voyages of the Adventure Galley

The silver aboard the Adventure Galley seemingly hails from Bolivia. This is not surprising given that the vast majority of global silver in the 17th and 18th centuries was extracted from the Potosi mines in the Bolivian mountains, a crucial economic centre in Spain’s New World empire. This discovery, therefore, provides a unique insight into the global trading patterns of the time.

The pomp and ceremony that has greeted the recovery of the treasure is perhaps unnecessary, particularly when compared to the solemn remembrances carried out for the Lusitania sinking. It is also unlikely that the discovery will provide any kind of boost to Madagascar’s nascent tourist industry.

It does, however, provide a more positive news story than much that is currently filling our screens. Additionally, it offers an important archaeological discovery, proffering questions about why a vessel would be scuttled when laden with treasure, Kidd’s desperate intentions at the height of his notoriety, and the interconnectedness of the global economy in the 17th century. This, at least, is worth celebrating.