In 2014, I watched Jennifer Gibson from the eminent prisoners’ rights group Reprieve talking about her group’s project to conduct a census of those killed by US drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan. The CIA conducts these strikes, using SIGINT to identify mobile phones belonging to likely targets and dispatch killer drones to annihilate anything in their vicinity. As former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden once confessed: “We kill people based on metadata.”
But the CIA does not specialize in SIGINT (that’s the NSA’s job). For most of its existence, the CIA was known as a HUMINT agency, the masters of disguise and infiltration..
That was the old CIA. The new CIA is just another SIGINT agency. Signals Intelligence isn’t just an intelligence methodology, it’s a great business. SIGINT means huge procurements — servers, administrators, electricity, data-centers, cooling — while HUMINT involves sending a lot of your friends into harm’s way, potentially never to return.
We are indeed in the “golden age of SIGINT”. Despite security services’ claims that terrorists are “going dark” with unbreakable encryption, the spooks have done much to wiretap the whole Internet.
The UK spy agency GCHQ really tipped their hand when they called their flagship surveillance program “Mastering the Internet.” Not “Mastering Cybercrime,” not “Mastering Our Enemies.” Mastering the *Internet* — the very same Internet that everyone uses, from the UK’s allies in the Five Eyes nations to the UK Parliament to Britons themselves. Similarly, a cursory glance at the logo for the NSA’s Special Source Operations — the fiber-tapping specialists at the NSA — tells the whole story.