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 whistle-blower 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.
As part of the covert operations against Gemalto, spies from GCHQ -- with support from the NSA -- mined the private communications of unwitting engineers and other company employees in multiple countries.
Gemalto was totally oblivious to the penetration of its systems -- and the spying on its employees. "I'm disturbed, quite concerned that this has happened," Paul Beverly, a Gemalto executive vice president, told The Intercept. "The most important thing for me is to understand exactly how this was done, so we can take every measure to ensure that it doesn't happen again, and also to make sure that there's no impact on the telecom operators that we have served in a very trusted manner for many years. What I want to understand is what sort of ramifications it has, or could have, on any of our customers." He added that "the most important thing for us now is to understand the degree" of the breach.
Leading privacy advocates and security experts say that the theft of encryption keys from major wireless network providers is tantamount to a thief obtaining the master ring of a building superintendent who holds the keys to every apartment. "Once you have the keys, decrypting traffic is trivial," says Christopher Soghoian, the principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union. "The news of this key theft will send a shock wave through the security community."