NSA Revealed Spying on the UN and EU Embassies

When President Obama announced at a press briefing on 9 August that his and the NSA’s only interest in surveillance is for the prevention of terrorism he was, of course, talking about US domestic surveillance. Spying on Americans is technically illegal: spying on other countries and nationalities is not. Nevertheless, the extent of NSA spying on traditional allies – such as the EU and the UN – revealed in documents leaked by Edward Snowden and discussed by Spiegel Online yesterday have disturbed and annoyed many Europeans.

The extent of the NSA access to the EU’s US missions seems to have been absolute. One of the documents seen by Spiegel and dated September 2010, shows that the NSA had breached both EU embassies (in Washington and New York), and also the VPN connection between the two. The VPN link was particularly valuable. "If we lose access to one site, we can immediately regain it by riding the VPN to the other side and punching a whole [sic] out," the NSA technicians said during an internal presentation. "We have done this several times when we got locked out of Magothy,” reports Spiegel. Magothy is the NSA code name for the EU embassy in Washington.

Spiegel Online claims that the US has a rating system for targets, drawn up in April. Red ‘1’ indicates the highest degree of interest; blue ‘5’ indicates the lowest. Iran, North Korea, China and Russia are unsurprisingly largely red. “But the UN and the EU are also listed as espionage targets, with issues of economic stability as the primary concern. The focus, though, is also on trade policy and foreign policy (each rated ‘3’) as well as energy security, food products and technological innovations (each rated ‘5’)”, says Spiegel.

One of the disturbing elements for both the the EU and the UN is the NSA’s determination to gather intelligence. “NSA technicians,” says Spiegel, “have managed to decrypt the UN's internal video teleconferencing (VTC) system. The combination of this new access to the UN and the cracked encryption code have led to ‘a dramatic improvement in VTC data quality and (the) ability to decrypt the VTC traffic,’ the NSA agents noted with great satisfaction: ‘This traffic is getting us internal UN VTCs (yay!).’ Within just under three weeks, the number of decrypted communications increased from 12 to 458.”

Spiegel also highlights an incident that could have come straight from a John le Carré novel. While spying on the UN, the NSA spotted Chinese hackers trying to do the same – but since the Chinese were unaware that the Americans were already there, the NSA managed to quietly hack back and "tap into Chinese SIGINT (signals intelligence) collection.”

Many Europeans have voiced deep concerns over these new revelations. Viviane Reding, the European Commissioner for Justice, has already said, “We cannot negotiate on a large trans-Atlantic market if there is the slightest suspicion that our partners are spying on the offices of our chief negotiator.” The EU and the US have recently commenced negotiations hoping to lead to a trade agreement creating a massive free trade area combining Europe and the USA. 

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has also voiced concerns over the Snowden revelations, but faced with elections next month (22 September) she is now under increased pressure to take a strong position. Peter Steinbruck, her main opponent in the elections, told ARD TV that if he wins the election, “I would interrupt the negotiations until the Americans say if German government offices and European institutions are bugged or wiretapped. We don’t know if the Americans may be sitting under our desk with some technical devices.”

What’s hot on Infosecurity Magazine?