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Snowden files latest: NSA and GCHQ targeted German satcomms

Rifled through diplomatic comms, A380 blueprints and more

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The NSA and GCHQ hacked into the systems of three German satellite communication providers, according to the latest leaks from the files of Edward Snowden, fugitive ex-NSA sysadmin.

Der Spiegel reports that GCHQ and the NSA tried to infiltrate internal networks run by satellite comms firms Stellar, Cetel and IABG.

Stellar provides internet and telephone services to difficult-to-reach locations such as oil drilling platforms, refugee camps and foreign outposts of multinational corporations. GCHQ targeted 16 employees, including chief exec Christian Steffen, as well as Stellar's most important customers and partners. The spying operation was run from a jointly operated NSA/GCHQ listening station based in the UK.

The leaked documents (which were undated) report that the spooks were able to create a comprehensive list of customers after gaining access to the servers of rival satellite comms firm Cetel. The firm's customers include non-governmental organisations as well as a "northern European country that uses Cetel to connect its diplomatic outposts to the internet," Der Spiegel reports, adding that most of Cetel's customers are in the Middle East and Africa.

While there might be some anti-terrorist rationale in hacking into the networks of Stellar and Cetel and tapping into their backhaul fibre-optic communications, the justification for similar tactics against IABG look much more like economic espionage. IABG "operated the testing facility for Germany's Transrapid super high-speed maglev train and also conducted testing on the Airbus A380 super jumbo jet and the Ariane rocket" as well as providing comms services for the Bundeswehr, Germany's armed forces.

Previous leaks have revealed how the NSA carried out mass surveillance on the communications of millions of Germans as well as famously targeting the mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The latest leaks over the weekend reveal that the NSA targeted as many as 122 world leaders for surveillance. Government officials and senior politicians in China, Russia, Ukraine, Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, Yemen, Sudan, Guatemala, Bosnia and Japan all featured on the wish list, The Intercept reports.

The latest leaks show that Angela Merkel was placed in the so-called "Target Knowledge Database" (TKB), the central database of individual high profile targets. A ‪Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act‬ (FISA) court approved the spying on Merkel and others. Back in December US President Barack Obama promised Merkel that the US would no longer target her for surveillance. A White House spokesman confirmed the hands-off promise to one of the US's key allies in Europe without commenting on previous spying operations.

Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko, and Yulia Tymoshenko (former Ukrainian prime minister turned pro-Western presidential candidate) also feature in the Target Knowledge Database. ®

Wiretap note

Merkel uses two mobiles, it emerged last week. The German chancellor uses a BlackBerry Z10, outfitted with an encryption chip by Secusmart, for state business. But she also uses a Nokia 6260 Slide for party matters. And it was this Nokia Series 40-powered Kanzler-Handy (chancellor mobile) that was pwned by the NSA, The Guardian reports.

It's not clear whether or not the other four nations reportedly snooping on the German head of state's mobile had also tapped into the same phone but (if so) it's a wonder that it was still useable as a device for actually making calls.

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