According to new documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and reported by The Intercept, the NSA for years has been spying on the GSM Association and other wireless companies in an effort to improve its ability to monitor communications over cellular networks worldwide.
The revelations are just the latest in a long string of NSA disclosures tied to Snowden, who obtained classified documents while working for the NSA and has since leaked those documents to a variety of media outlets during the past year. These latest documents show the NSA targeted wireless companies to find ways to monitor communications over wireless networks. The NSA has said its efforts are targeted at terrorists.
As The Intercept reports, the NSA's AURORAGOLD operation targeted more than 1,200 email accounts associated with major cellphone network operators, though the operators aren't named in the report. However, The Intercept does note that the NSA's program targeted the GSMA, the Europe-based trade association for the wireless industry. The GSMA holds the annual Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, Spain, which is one of the world's leading events for the wireless industry.
In targeting the GSMA, the NSA in part sought to break the A5/3 wireless encryption standard that wireless operators use to prevent hackers from obtaining information on their customers. The Washington Post reported last year that the NSA had already managed to break the most commonly used cellphone encryption algorithm in the world, known as A5/1. The A5/3 standard is the more powerful version of that standard, according to The Intercept.
Interestingly, as early as 2010 the NSA sought access to 4G LTE networks. One document posted by The Intercept shows the NSA obtained "collection" of TD-LTE communications.
Citing NSA documents provided by Snowden, The Intercept reported that, as of May 2012, the NSA had collected "technical information" on about 70 percent of wireless networks worldwide--701 of an estimated 985.
"NSA collects only those communications that it is authorized by law to collect in response to valid foreign intelligence and counterintelligence requirements--regardless of the technical means used by foreign targets, or the means by which those targets attempt to hide their communications," NSA spokeswoman Vanee' Vines told The Intercept
Claire Cranton, a spokeswoman for the GSMA, told The Intercept that the group would not respond to the report until its lawyers had reviewed the documents.
President Barack Obama in March endorsed changes to the NSA's program under which the NSA would no longer collect the data, and the data would stay with phone companies, which would not be required to keep it longer than they normally would.
But the issue has already affected some telcos. For example, Verizon's contract with the German government has been cancelled following revelations last year of U.S. government spying, according to multiple media reports.
- see this Intercept article
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