NSA spies on SA cellphones

2014-10-08 00:00

AMERICA’S most secret agency is spying on South African smartphone users — having secretly hijacked at least one local Internet server.

German newspaper Der Siegel has published internal presentations by the National Security Agency (NSA) on a massive global project to “map” all users of mobile devices, based on the archive of whistleblower Edward Snowden.

One document reveals that the NSA has hijacked servers in South Africa and 15 other countries, which are now “unwitting data centres” for the “Treasure Map” project.

Another panel suggests that the software that has been snuck into South Africa — codenamed “Packaged Goods” — can track six million “traceroutes” per day, which is the journey every piece of searched data follows on the Internet.

Cyber security experts told The Witness that they believed the NSA — using front companies — had set up two servers here, and was harvesting “end user” information daily, “right down to where you are on the bus”.

Meanwhile, the CEO of a global company, Stellar PCS, which supplies satellite Internet to various African countries exclaimed “F***!” when Der Spiegel showed him the presentations, and said: “The intelligence services could use this data to shut down the Internet in entire African countries”.

The NSA states that Treasure Map’s aim was to “map the entire Internet (in real-time) — any device; anywhere; any time”.

In a presentation entitled “Bad guys are everywhere”, intelligence officials said its servers — described as “globally dispersed traceroute generators” — conducted “network reconnaissance” and device tracking, and “can do whole countries”.

Jan Vermeulen, a Pretoria-based Internet sleuth, first noticed South Africa among the NSA’s targets last month, along with nations like Brazil, Russia and Malaysia.

Vermeulen said the NSA had other secret ways of trying to monitor the information on our devices, from e-mail to apps, but that “Treasure Map lets them find devices on the Internet, so they know where to target their other programs.

“This is just part of a larger surveillance puzzle,” he said.

Drew van Vuuren, a cyber­security expert at 4Di Privaca, said: “No matter how you look at it, the NSA is spying on South Africans. This is insidious.

“To accomplish what they’re trying, we think they will have a primary server and a back-up,” said Van Vuuren. “We are seen as an intelligence conduit into Africa. Very likely, the provider they’ve attached themselves to has no idea who they are, or what they’re doing on the network.”

But Van Vuuren said any search for the hijacked server would be “a needle in a haystack effort”.

Nabeel Tootla (26), a Durban civil engineer, was outraged by the revelations. “Seriously, how dare they?” he said. “It’s obviously a gross breach of our privacy rights, but its also more evidence of the contempt the American government has for rest of the world.”

When the New York Times challenged an unnamed senior NSA official on Treasure Map, the official insisted the agency had not hacked the servers in the 13 countries, but, rather “secretly uses front companies to lease space on the servers”, describing the mapping as research, rather than surveillance.

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