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Big Brother is watching closely

The National Security Agency headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, in 2010
The National Security Agency headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, in 2010. AFP

Big Brother is watching closely

The United States taps the telephones and monitors the emails of everyone in this region.

No one is immune: not you, not me, not Prime Minister Hun Sen or opposition leader Sam Rainsy.

We know it because of the revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, now in exile in Moscow.

As The New York Times noted this month: “The NSA has operated on the principle that any eavesdropping that can be done on a foreign target of any conceivable interest, now or in the future, should be done.”

It called the NSA “an electronic omnivore of staggering capabilities, hacking its way around the world to strip governments and other targets of their secrets”.

In this way, Washington monitors not only communications from dodgy regimes like Myanmar and Vietnam, but also from treaty allies like the Philippines and Thailand.

In Phnom Penh, the NSA’s Special Collection Service operates out of locked rooms in the massive US Embassy near Wat Phnom, where it snags all Cambodian messages and those from Laos and Vietnam.

Perhaps it’s not unexpected nor anything to fret about.

As Peter Galbraith, a former US ambassador, wrote in The Guardian: “How serious is the invasion of privacy? The NSA can vacuum up huge quantities of data, but that does not mean it is useful.”

He added: “Most of us lead lives that are of no interest to any intelligence agency and, even for people of interest, most conversations and email are of no intelligence value.”

Well, maybe, but let us pause a moment and appreciate that while what Galbraith said has some validity, it is also undeniable that many people do lead lives of great interest.

Recently, the Bangkok Post pondered the probability that Washington listens to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s phone conversations.

It concluded that US President Barack Obama could well “have received details of confidential conversations before his trip to Thailand last year”.

Big deal, you may say; but think again and forget the boring political policy talk and consider more portentous personal issues.

For instance, after eavesdropping on Hun Sen and his ministers and election officials, as well as on Sam Rainsy and his men, the US will know for sure whether the July election result was fixed.

It will also know whether Foreign Minister Hor Namhong really did show a draft of the final ASEAN Ministerial Meeting communiqué to the Chinese for approval last July.

Likewise, the US spy agency will be aware of just how involved the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was with the beautiful Mongolian model Altantuya Shaaribuu, who was subsequently murdered.

In fact, they will hold the answer to many rumours, such as whether the alleged flirtation of Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi with the young MP-elect David Hla Myint did cause the revered party strategist Kyi Maung to quit.

And they will know for sure if the 2010 assassination of the renegade Thai General “Seh Daeng”, who backed anti-government Red Shirt protests, was the work of army snipers based in the Dusit Thani Hotel.

Such information is invaluable to a foreign power. It is the ultimate deterrent and the ultimate enforcer: Do what I say or be prepared for unsavory revelations.

An example of how it works is now unfolding in the Philippines, where the NSA has long had the dope on every political figure, including the veteran leader of the Senate, Juan Ponce Enrile.

Right now, Washington is keen to station troops once again in the country; but while President Benigno Aquino backs the idea, Enrile does not.

Suddenly, there are revelations that Enrile has stolen public funds and he is charged with plunder. Where did the information come from?

And will the charges be dropped if he stops objecting to US troops coming back?

It’s a potent reminder to all leaders that someone is watching, and if they do something naughty, it may be revealed. And that’s no bad thing.

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