US, UK spies stole data to crack phones

US, UK spies stole data to crack phones
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Spies in the U.S. and United Kingdom carried out a secret mission in 2010 to break into the internal network of a multinational cellphone chip producer and steal keys allowing them to hack into people’s phones, according to new leaked documents from Edward Snowden.

Those stolen keys allowed the National Security Agency (NSA) and its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), to bypass cellphone encryption protections and monitor people’s communications without having to go to cellphone companies or the courts for help.


That access allows agencies to decrypt both voice and data messages sent through the phones, offering a detailed glimpse into someone’s personal communications.

Encryption technologies built into modern SIM cards, which also store people’s contacts, pictures and other data, prevent people from easily listening into each other’s calls or reading their text messages.

In order to bypass those security systems, documents leaked by Snowden to the Intercept show that officials from both the NSA and GCHQ joined forces to form the Mobile Handset Exploitation Team in 2010. The spies digitally broke into the network of Gemalto, a Dutch company that produces chips for AT&T, Verizon and other major cellphone service providers, and “harvested” tens of thousands of keys as they were sent to wireless companies.  

In a 2010 slide, GCHQ officials claimed to have “successfully implanted several machines and believe we have their entire network.”

In order to break into the network, agency officials cracked into the email and Facebook accounts of Gemalto employees.

Once a system to nab the keys was set up, it “can deliver significant results with little manual effort,” the GCHQ said in another top-secret document

News of the effort is likely to increase scrutiny on the NSA, which has long been the subject of ire from civil liberties advocates, and could strain the U.S.’s relationship with officials in the Netherlands.