[FOUNTAIN]Electronic ‘spying’ provokes concern

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[FOUNTAIN]Electronic ‘spying’ provokes concern

Writer Dan Brown, who is famous for the international bestseller “The Da Vinci Code,” explored the subject of e-mail monitoring in “Digital Fortress.”
The novel is set at the National Security Agency (NSA), a U.S. federal security service conducting espionage activities worldwide through electronic wiretapping and monitoring. In the late 1980s, the NSA witnessed a cyber communications revolution with the emergence of the Internet and e-mail. The agency learned that terrorists, spies and criminals were using encrypted e-mail messages instead of the telephone as a channel of communication in order to avoid government eavesdropping. E-mail had the security of mail and the promptness of the telephone, and moreover was free from eavesdropping because it does not use radio waves.
Facing a national security crisis and terror treats, the NSA developed TRANSLTR, a supercomputer that could decipher even the most complicated encrypted message within minutes. It meant the birth of “Big Brother,” which could secretly monitor any e-mail exchanged between individuals all over the world if it wanted to.
Repelled by the intrusion on privacy, an NSA programmer expresses his resistance by creating “Digital Fortress,” an encryption algorithm that cannot be solved even by TRANSLTR. The novel’s plot revolves around the conspiracy and contest of intelligence surrounding the unbreakable code.
As with the supercomputer in the novel, the NSA uses Echelon, the global eavesdropping and spying network, to intercept up to 3 billion communications daily, including phone conversations, e-mail, Internet downloads and satellite transmissions. The top policymakers of the United States make their final decisions based on reports by the NSA, which monitors the every move of foreign leaders, trade negotiation partners, terrorists and members of drug trafficking rings.
In Korea, e-mail interception and monitoring have emerged as a crucial technique in criminal investigations. It is estimated that about 1.2 billion e-mail messages are exchanged domestically every day. Last year, the police made 48,000 inquiries into Internet log-in records such as e-mail servers.
We cannot blame the investigation and intelligence agencies for lawfully monitoring and intercepting the e-mail messages of criminal suspects to prevent terrorism and seek out criminal syndicates. But the controversy over the illegal eavesdropping by the National Security Planning Agency, the predecessor of the National Intelligence Service, makes us imagine the unpleasant situation of personal e-mail messages being monitored by a state agency. I hope my apprehension turns out to be a needless fear.


by Ko Dae-hoon

The writer is a deputy city news editor for the JoongAng Ilbo.
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