February 21, 2015 | By Parmjeet Singh
USA/UK: There are reports that Britain’s electronic spying agency, in co-operation with the US National Security Agency, hacked into the networks of a Dutch company to steal codes that allow both governments to seamlessly eavesdrop on mobile phones worldwide. The reports are said to be based on documents given to journalists by former NSA employee and “privacy whistle-blower” Edward Snowden.
A story about the documents posted on the website The Intercept offered no details on how the intelligence agencies employed the eavesdropping capability — providing no evidence, for example, they misused it to spy on people who weren’t valid intelligence targets.
But the surreptitious operation against the world’s largest manufacturer of mobile phone data chips is bound to stoke anger. It fuels an impression that the NSA and its British counterpart will do whatever they deem necessary to further their surveillance prowess, even if it means stealing information from law-abiding Western companies.
The targeted company, Netherlands-based Gemalto, makes SIM cards, used in mobile phones and credit cards. One of the company’s three global headquarters is in Austin, Texas. Its clients include network providers AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint.
The Intercept offered no evidence of any eavesdropping against US customers of those providers, and company officials told the website they had no idea their networks had been penetrated. Experts called it a major compromise of mobile phone security.
Gemalto said it could not immediately confirm the reported hack and “had no prior knowledge that these agencies were conducting this operation”. The firm said it “will devote all resources necessary to fully investigate” the reported hack.
In addition to SIM cards, Gemalto is a leading maker of encryption systems for business and industrial uses, including electronic payment processing and “smart” key cards that businesses and government agencies use to restrict access to computers or other sensitive facilities. “Their SIM cards would be used by most of the major telecom operators,” said Linley Gwennap, an analyst at the Linley Group, a Silicon Valley tech research firm.
The NSA did not respond to a request for comment. In the past, former agency officials have defended using extra-legal techniques to further surveillance capabilities, saying the US needs to be able to eavesdrop on terrorists and US adversaries who communicate on the same networks as everyone else. The NSA, like the CIA, breaks the espionage and hacking laws of other countries to get information that helps US interests.
Still, the methods in this case may prove controversial, as did earlier Snowden revelations that the NSA was hacking transmissions among Google’s data centres.
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