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The Secret War of Wiretaps (A. Charret)

In the midst of the "Snowden" affair, and after the many revelations on the listening capabilities of the NSA, this book seems timely. In a general context of intensification and diversification of the use of telecommunications in our daily lives, it is thus interesting to question the means available to States to engage in “ eavesdropping war ».


Alain Charret is a former member of the Air Force. He has worked in multiple listening centers - in France, Germany, Russia - and is still passionately dedicated to this issue today. He is one of the contributors to the publications of the French Intelligence Research Center, a body for reflection and advice on intelligence which attempts to initiate a reflection on intelligence in France and to promote studies on this question. He is therefore not a historian but a specialist in the question of wiretapping. The method suffers: it would be more of an essay - note also the absence of bibliography - written by a passionate wishing to use his own experience on the question than a real history book. Generally speaking, the writing is simple and the tone light, which makes reading pleasant and easy.

The great powers are listening to you

To begin the work, the author reviews the use of interception of communications as a means of information for States. From the end of the 19th century, the Eiffel Tower was seen as a useful means of intercepting radio waves - it played a role in particular in the context of the arrest of Mata Hari. One of the great historical examples of the role of eavesdropping in conflicts is that of the decryption of German communications encoded by the Enigma machine during World War II by the British services, allowing the Allies to know German intentions. The Cold War, then the context of the development of international terrorism, forced the States to equip themselves today with structures for listening to telecommunications.

The author takes stock of the various intelligence services with capabilities for listening and intercepting communications: the NSA in the United States, with supercomputers capable of storing billions of information and relying on the network. Echelon, the DGSE in France which have multiple listening stations, the Mossad, etc.

A compilation of examples

The author offers different types of tapping: tapping for military purposes (decoding of Enigma), tapping for political purposes, for economic purposes and in the context of the fight against terrorism. The clipping is not uninteresting, however, the content is sometimes quite uneven. Some cases deserve to be explained in more depth, to the detriment of others which sometimes seem anecdotal or which too often come under “hearsay”. The work sometimes looks more like a compilation of examples from newspaper articles than a personal reflection of the author. However, this has the advantage of showing us the place of eavesdropping in journalists' representations of the espionage world.

Food for thought on the future of listening

However, let us not be too harsh: some examples are very interesting, and can bring a new dimension to the understanding of certain events and to international relations. In this sense, the most interesting part is undoubtedly that relating to the role of wiretapping in terrorism, on which the author delivers an interesting reflection.
Indeed, the intelligence services have set up interception centers for long-wave communications - passing in particular via satellites - and store an inestimable amount of data. It is more the containers - who calls whom - than the contents that interest the services. However, in reaction, terrorist movements tend to adopt new methods, combining the emission of radio waves with the Internet, in order to escape interceptions.

The last chapter on the future of listening also provides interesting lines of thought. Indeed, the services, especially American, today benefit from budgets and considerable equipment to intercept communications. However, the number of communications are such that many cannot be handled by analysts. The "big ears" would have become so big that they could only allow us to catch an incomprehensible hubbub.

Far from maintaining the “Big Brother” myth, and despite some imperfections, reading this book offers food for thought to everyone: is it useful to intercept everything? What balance can be found between respect for freedoms and the fight against terrorism? What place for human intelligence versus technical intelligence?

The Secret War of Wiretaps, by Alain Charet. Editions Ouest-France, May 2013.

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