Circumventing Invasive Internet Surveillance with Carrier Pigeons


Anthony Judge – TRANSCEND Media Service

Rewilding the Endangered World Wide Web of Avian Migration Pathways


Recent disclosures have revealed the extreme level of surveillance of telephone and internet communications, as discussed separately with respect to the US National Security Agency, the UK GCHQ, and other members of the Five Eyes Anglosphere agreement (Vigorous Application of Derivative Thinking to Derivative Problems, 2013). There is therefore a case for exploring how such surveillance can be avoided, if that is considered desirable. The situation can be compared to that in any wilderness where predators deliberately create zones of fear through the manner of their engagement with potential prey — prior to any attack, as recently noted (Scared to death: how predators really kill, New Scientist, 5 June 2013, pp. 36-39).

Extensive use has been made in the past of carrier pigeons for secure communications, notably in arenas of threat, and most notably in World War I, continuing into World War II, but to a lesser degree. The founder of the news agency Reuters made use of carrier pigeons for the delivery of vital financial data in parallel with introduction of the telegraph. Other little-known examples are cited in what follows.

With the current development in the insecurity of computer and internet technology, there is a case for exploring alternative possibilities in the light of the threat of internet surveillance and the need for secure communications. Security agencies are effectively framing the “war on terrorism” as a global war in which independent governments and institutions are a source of potential security threat — as well as the world population at large.

It is to be expected that active consideration will be given to possibilities of secure communications by diplomatic services following the Wikileaks disclosures (Alleged Breach of UN Treaty Obligations by US, 2010). It is also to be expected that governments with any interest in preserving the confidentiality of their own communications, including developing countries and delegations to international conferences, will want to consider their need for such facilities — especially in the light of the recent disclosures regarding communications in such contexts (Ewen MacAskill, et al., GCHQ intercepted foreign politicians’ communications at G20 summits, The Guardian, 17 June 2013; GCHQ taps fibre-optic cables for secret access to world’s communications, The Guardian, 21 June 2013). Clearly use of internet facilities has become increasingly untrustworthy.

At the time of writing, new disclosures allege that EU facilities and communications in a number of locations, including the United Nations, have been a specific “target” of NSA surveillance (Attacks from America: NSA Spied on European Union Offices, Spiegel Online International, 29 June 2013; EU concern over Der Spiegel claim of US spying, BBC News, 30 June 2013; EU demands clarification over US spying claims, The Guardian, 30 June 2013; Key US-EU trade pact under threat after more NSA spying allegations, The Guardian, 30 June 2013; Washington Post releases four new slides from NSA’s Prism presentation, The Guardian, 30 June 2013; New NSA leaks show how US is bugging its European allies, The Guardian, 30 June 2013). There is now recognition of the manner in which major US internet companies used “locked mailboxes” through which to make available information to the NSA, despite earlier denials regarding such complicity (Tech Companies Concede to Surveillance Program, The New York Times, 7 June 2013). The companies allegedly included Google [YouTube, Gmail], Microsoft [Hotmail and Skype], Yahoo, Facebook, AOL, Apple, and Paltalk.

Reports in The Guardian noted that:

The documents, seen by the Observer, show that — in addition to the UK — Denmark, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy have all had formal agreements to provide communications data to the US. They state that the EU countries have had “second and third party status” under decades-old signal intelligence (Sigint) agreements that compel them to hand over data which, in later years, experts believe, has come to include mobile phone and internet data.

Under the international intelligence agreements, nations are categorised by the US according to their trust level. The US is defined as ‘first party’ while the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand enjoy ‘second party’ trusted relationships. Countries such as Germany and France have ‘third party’, or less trusted, relationships…. On an average day, the NSA monitored about 20m German phone connections and 10m internet datasets, rising to 60m phone connections on busy days, the report said.

This exploration follows from recognition of transfer of information from one computer to another without use of a network linking them. Such transfer of electronic information, especially computer files, by physically moving removable media such as magnetic tape, floppy disks, compact discs, USB memory sticks, or external hard drives has been informally described as Sneakernet — a humorous contrast to transfer via Ethernet.

As discussed, it is clear that protective measures against invasive surveillance will need to take a different form and scale if they are to be viable. On the other hand the reassurance by the UK Foreign Minster William Hague that If you have nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear… (9 June 2013) could now be offered to European institutions currently preoccupied by the matter.


Recognized competence of carrier pigeons
Demonstrated non-military messaging capacity of carrier pigeons
Demonstrated non-messaging capacity of carrier pigeons
Demonstrated military capacity of carrier pigeons
Assessment of viability of data transfer by carrier pigeons
Personal and social implications of use of carrier pigeons
Implications for intelligence agencies and security
Engagement of birds in advanced communication technologies of the future
Greening the world wide web using migratory birds
Carrier pigeons for peace (Pmail) vs. Drones for war?



This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 1 Jul 2013.

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