The National Security Agency (NSA) knows the secrets of more than 70 percent of the world's wireless networks, and it works hard to keep it that way. This is according to newly unearthed secret NSA documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The recently discovered operation, codenamed Auroragold, aims to monitor the operations of 701 out of 985 wireless carriers from several countries, including those allied with the United States. The documents were first revealed by The Intercept, a publication founded by journalists Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, who was instrumental in first reporting about the Snowden leaks to the press in 2013.
A map showing the extensive reach of Auroragold shows the NSA has some form of coverage on nearly all countries in the world, including allies such as the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Australia and New Zealand. In North Africa, the map shows the NSA has its hands deep in 100 percent of the countries' wireless networks, while 71 percent of China's mobile carriers are being spied on by the agency. Interestingly, the map shows it only has less than 25 percent coverage for United States carriers.
However, that does not mean to say the NSA does not know anything about American companies. In fact, one of Auroragold's biggest targets, The Intercept says, is the GSM Association of London, whose members include major wireless providers such as AT&T, Verizon and Vodafone as well as technology industry big-wigs such as Microsoft, Facebook and Cisco.
GSM Association spokesperson Claire Cranton declined to comment on the report until its lawyers have studied the documents. If the NSA has been found to be spying on the association and its "working groups," Cranton says the association will have to go to court.
A total of 1,200 email addresses of key employees of these companies are being spied on, according to the report. This allows the NSA to intercept internal communications about the technical details of the companies' networks. The NSA is also particularly interested in technical documents called IR.21s, which are passed on among network operators to enable roaming technology for customers who travel abroad. Embedded into these documents are the details of technical improvements and the IR.21s serve as a "warning mechanism" for the NSA to identify potential security holes that can be exploited for listening in on calls and reading text messages.
The IR.21s also contain encryption information used by wireless networks to guard the privacy of their customers. The NSA has already been known to have broken into A5/1, an older encryption protocol that is still used by many networks although newer protocols have been introduced. Breaking into encryption technologies, helps the agency to listen in on private calls and texts.
In a statement obtained by The Intercept, NSA spokesperson Vanee' Vines says it only goes after the communications of "valid targets," which include terrorists and weapons distributors but not "ordinary people."
"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," Vines says.