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4 Dec, 2014 20:00

NSA leak shows effort to exploit cell networks around the world

NSA leak shows effort to exploit cell networks around the world

​Collecting the call records of millions of Americans is nothing compared to the latest revelation about the National Security Agency. According to documents published on Thursday, the NSA is working to exploit every cell phone network on Earth.

Classified documents provided to The Intercept by former United States government contractor Edward Snowden now show that the NSA has sought to sabotage the encryption standards adopted by mobile devices and the networks they operate on as part of the agency’s efforts to collect the world’s communications for supposed national security purposes.

According to files supplied to the website by Snowden, since at least 2010 the NSA has been engaged in an exorbitant operation that’s involved the US agency routinely eavesdropping on companies and organizations around the globe that are affiliated with the mobile technology industry in an effort to stay on top of the encryption methods being used so they could then be undermined by American spies.

Hundreds of targets have fallen victim to this act of NSA-led espionage, Ryan Gallagher wrote for the Intercept, “in an effort to find security weaknesses in cellphone technology that it can exploit for surveillance.”

Through the covert operation, codenamed AURORAGOLD, the NSA “has monitored the content of messages sent and received by more than 1,200 email accounts associated with major cellphone network operators,” Gallagher wrote, “intercepting confidential company planning papers that help the NSA hack into phone networks.” Among the targets, he reported, is a UK-based trade group, the GSM Association, which works closely with huge American-headquartered firms including Microsoft, Facebook, AT&T, and Cisco.

Screenshot from documentcloud.org

In September, the US Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology, NIST, gave the trade group’s American office $821,948 to be used on, among other projects, privacy challenges currently facing the mobile industry. Nevertheless, Gallagher wrote that the Snowden files specifically show that the NSA has targeted the GSMA’s working groups for surveillance.

Previously, documents supplied by the former contractor have shown that the NSA has spied on Petrobras, the national oil company of Brazil, along with other individuals and entities around the globe. That revelation and others have led to the formation of a task group by US President Barack Obama in charge of suggesting ways to reform the NSA. Nearly one year after that group first supplied its recommendations, however, little has changed at the agency since the time before the media first reported on the Snowden leaks in June 2013.

Last month, lawmakers in Congress shot down a measure that would have curtailed the collection of telephony metadata — call data about numbers dialed — by the NSA, nearly a year and a half after the practice was disclosed through secret documents supplied by Snowden.

According to the latest report to stem from those files, the NSA has maintained a list of 1,201 email “selectors” that are used to target internal company details as part of AURORAGOLD since May 2012. In the four months before then, though, Gallagher reported that between 363 and 1,354 selectors were “tasked” monthly by the NSA for surveillance.

In one of the Snowden documents, Gallagher added, a map reveals that nearly every country in the world is currently part of the NSA’s operation, with 100 percent of some nations’ telecoms having already been compromised. According to the journalist, the program “aimed at ensuring virtually every cellphone network in the world is NSA accessible.”

Screenshot from documentcloud.org