Don’t Worry: The NSA Is Monitoring the Global Economy for Us

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Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/scobleizer/

Brazilian TV network Globo aired a story Sunday night alleging that, as part of its highly controversial electronic monitoring program, the U.S. National Security Agency snooped through networks at Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), Petrobras (NYSE:PBR), and the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, which specializes in secure financial messaging services.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the news agency revealed a training slide leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealing that the NSA targeted the companies for, among other things, economic reasons.

News that the NSA targeted companies and individuals around the world under the nebulous umbrella of national security is nothing new. Snowden first leaked information related to top-secret mass surveillance programs conducted by the United States and the United Kingdom to U.K. newspaper The Guardian in May.

Since then, a media firestorm has surrounded the topic, enveloping not just public attention but the notice of major Internet and technology companies like Google, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), and AT&T (NYSE:T), which have sent executives to meet with President Barack Obama regarding the issue.

The documents leaked by Snowden include slides from a presentation on a data-mining operation called PRISM. The slides cite by name major U.S. technology and Internet institutions like Google, Apple, Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO), Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), via Hotmail and Skype.

The public backlash to the government’s mass surveillance program — both domestic and international — has been massive. The issue has been immensely divisive and has elicited public statements from people like German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich and German Justice Minister Jörg-Uwe Hahn, who called for a boycott of American tech companies.

What makes the report from Globo particularly interesting is not necessarily that it reveals targets of of NSA surveillance, but that it reveals an unexpected reason for the snooping. Ostensibly, the NSA monitors communications in order to gather information about possible threats to national security or to track down leads related to wanted individuals.

According to the Globo report — and verified by a response from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper — “the Intelligence Community collects information about economic and financial matters, and terrorist financing.”

The statement continued: “We collect this information for many important reasons: for one, it could provide the United States and our allies early warning of international financial crises which could negatively impact the global economy. It also could provide insight into other countries’ economic policy or behavior which could affect global markets.”

Clapper states immediately that this is “not a secret,” but the report has raised red flags, particularly related to economic and corporate espionage. Petrobras is a state-run oil company and one of the largest in the world. The report also suggested that the NSA looked into France’s Foreign Ministry, according to Reuters.

News of the NSA monitoring foreign corporations is particularly ironic in light of recent accusations by U.S. policymakers that China was stealing trade secrets from U.S. corporations. U.S. prosecutors recently indicted a Chinese wind-turbine company for exactly this reason.

Clapper tried to dismiss the concerns: ”What we do not do, as we have said many times, is use our foreign intelligence capabilities to steal the trade secrets of foreign companies on behalf of — or give intelligence we collect to — US companies to enhance their international competitiveness or increase their bottom line.”

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