NSA director Mike Rogers testified in front of a Senate committee this week, lamenting that the poor ol’ NSA just doesn’t have the “cyber-offensive” capabilities (read: the ability to hack people) it needs to adequately defend the US. How cyber-attacking countries will help cyber-defense is anybody’s guess, but the idea that the NSA is somehow hamstrung is absurd.
Yes, we (or rather, our representatives) are expected to believe the NSA is just barely getting by when it comes to cyber-capabilities. Somehow, backdoors in phone SIM cards, backdoors in networking hardware, backdoors in hard drives, compromised encryption standards, collection points on internet backbones, the cooperation of national security agencies around the world, stealth deployment of malicious spyware, the phone records of pretty much every American, access to major tech company data centers, an arsenal of purchased software and hardware exploits, various odds and ends yet to be disclosed and the full support of the last two administrations just isn’t enough. Now, it wants the blessing of lawmakers to do even more than it already does. Which is quite a bit, actually.
The NSA runs sophisticated hacking operations all over the world. A Washington Post report showed that the NSA carried out 231 “offensive” operations in 2011 – and that number has surely grown since then. That report also revealed that the NSA runs a $652m project that has infected tens of thousands of computers with malware.
That was four years ago — a lifetime when it comes to an agency with the capabilities the NSA possesses. Anyone who believes the current numbers are lower is probably lobbying increased power. And they don’t believe it. They’d just act like they do.
If you were the Secretary of Defense of a large country, you might think you’d be slightly concerned that foreign agents would want to spy on you. Not so down in Australia apparently, where the current Secretary of Defense, insists that he’d be “surprised” if anyone wanted to find out what was on his phone. Seriously.
We’ve written about the recent story, revealed in documents leaked by Ed Snowden, that the NSA and GCHQ were able to hack into the systems of Gemalto, the world’s largest maker of SIM cards for mobile phones, and obtain the encryption keys used in those cards. While Gemalto insists that the hack didn’t actually get those encryption keys, not everyone feels so comfortable with Gemalto’s own analysis of what happened.
Senator Scott Ludlam (who we’ve written about a few times before) reasonably found the story of the Gemalto hack to be concerning, and went about asking some questions of the government to find out what they knew about it. The results are rather astounding. First he had asked ASIO, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, and they said it wasn’t their area, but it might be ASD (the Australian Signals Directorate). The video below shows Ludlam asking the ASD folks for more information about the hack and being flabbergasted that they basically say they haven’t even heard about the hack at all:
Right at the beginning, the first person says he’s not aware of the situation, and Ludlam asks “are you aware of the broad outlines?” and gets a “no I am not” response, leading to a rather dry “Really?!? Okay, this is going to be interesting” reply from Ludlam. It goes on in this nature for a while, with the various people on the panel playing dumb, and Ludlam repeatedly (and rightly) appearing shocked that they appear to have no idea about the story.
But the really incredible part comes in the last minute of the video, in which Ludlam asks the Australian Secretary of Defense, Dennis Richardson, about his own concerns about his phone being spied on:
Ludlam: Do you use an encrypted phone, Mr. Richardson?
Richardson: No, I don’t.
Ludlam: Right. Okay. Do you use a commercial — I’m not asking you to name names — but do you use a commercial telecommunications provider?
Richardson: Yeah, yeah, yes.
Ludlam: So there might be a SIM card in your phone or mind. Does this alarm you at all?
Ludlam: Why is that?
Richardson: Well, because I don’t particularly deal with people who… if anyone wants to listen to my telephone calls they can. I’d be surprised if they do, but I don’t particularly have conversations which I’m particularly worried about.
[Laughter all around the room]
Ludlam: So it’s okay if foreign spooks have hacked every mobile handset in the country because you don’t have anything in particular…
Richardson: It’s possible some might try to.
Ludlam: It’s possible some just have.
Richardson: [shrugs] Well, it’s possible.
So there you have it, folks. The Australian Secretary of Defense says that anyone is allowed to listen in to his calls, because there’s nothing secret about any of them. I’m not quite familiar with public records/freedom of information laws in Australia, but is it possible for someone to put in a request for recording all of the Secretary of Defense’s phone calls?
European officials are demanding answers and investigations into a joint U.S. and U.K. hack of the world’s largest manufacturer of mobile SIM cards, following a report published by The Intercept Thursday.
The report, based on leaked documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, revealed the U.S. spy agency and its British counterpart Government Communications Headquarters, GCHQ, hacked the Franco-Dutch digital security giant Gemalto in a sophisticated heist of encrypted cell-phone keys.
The European Parliament’s chief negotiator on the European Union’s data protection law, Jan Philipp Albrecht, said the hack was “obviously based on some illegal activities.”
“Member states like the U.K. are frankly not respecting the [law of the] Netherlands and partner states,” Albrecht told the Wall Street Journal.
Sophie in ’t Veld, an EU parliamentarian with D66, the Netherlands’ largest opposition party, added, “Year after year we have heard about cowboy practices of secret services, but governments did nothing and kept quiet […] In fact, those very same governments push for ever-more surveillance capabilities, while it remains unclear how effective these practices are.”
“If the average IT whizzkid breaks into a company system, he’ll end up behind bars,” In ’t Veld added in a tweet Friday.
The EU itself is barred from undertaking such investigations, leaving individual countries responsible for looking into cases that impact their national security matters. “We even get letters from the U.K. government saying we shouldn’t deal with these issues because it’s their own issue of national security,” Albrecht said.
Still, lawmakers in the Netherlands are seeking investigations. Gerard Schouw, a Dutch member of parliament, also with the D66 party, has called on Ronald Plasterk, the Dutch minister of the interior, to answer questions before parliament. On Tuesday, the Dutch parliament will debate Schouw’s request.
Additionally, European legal experts tell The Intercept, public prosecutors in EU member states that are both party to the Cybercrime Convention, which prohibits computer hacking, and home to Gemalto subsidiaries could pursue investigations into the breach of the company’s systems.
According to secret documents from 2010 and 2011, a joint NSA-GCHQ unit penetrated Gemalto’s internal networks and infiltrated the private communications of its employees in order to steal encryption keys, embedded on tiny SIM cards, which are used to protect the privacy of cellphone communications across the world. Gemalto produces some 2 billion SIM cards a year.
The company’s clients include AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint and some 450 wireless network providers. “[We] believe we have their entire network,” GCHQ boasted in a leaked slide, referring to the Gemalto heist.
AMERICAN AND BRITISH spies hacked into the internal computer network of the largest manufacturer of SIM cards in the world, stealing encryption keys used to protect the privacy of cellphone communications across the globe, according to top-secret documents provided to The Intercept by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The hack was perpetrated by a joint unit consisting of operatives from the NSA and its British counterpart Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ. The breach, detailed in a secret 2010 GCHQ document, gave the surveillance agencies the potential to secretly monitor a large portion of the world’s cellular communications, including both voice and data.
The company targeted by the intelligence agencies, Gemalto, is a multinational firm incorporated in the Netherlands that makes the chips used in mobile phones and next-generation credit cards. Among its clients are AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint and some 450 wireless network providers around the world. The company operates in 85 countries and has more than 40 manufacturing facilities. One of its three global headquarters is in Austin, Texas and it has a large factory in Pennsylvania.
In all, Gemalto produces some 2 billion SIM cards a year. Its motto is “Security to be Free.”
With these stolen encryption keys, intelligence agencies can monitor mobile communications without seeking or receiving approval from telecom companies and foreign governments. Possessing the keys also sidesteps the need to get a warrant or a wiretap, while leaving no trace on the wireless provider’s network that the communications were intercepted. Bulk key theft additionally enables the intelligence agencies to unlock any previously encrypted communications they had already intercepted, but did not yet have the ability to decrypt.