Spies at 33,000 feet! NSA listens to phone calls in flight

Aircraft carrying GSM phone-using passengers are revealed to have been targeted by the NSA for at least the past 5 years. This information comes from a newly revealed document from the National Security Agency's former contractor and infamous leaker Edward Snowden. In this document, a riddle starts off the reveal of technology which allowed and allows the NSA to listen in on phone calls and intercept messages posted to social networks – texts too, of course.

This latest pile of documents published by LeMonde included a 2010 internal information newsletter: "SID today." In this document was included the following intro: "What do the President of Pakistan, a trafficker in firearms or cigars, a target of counter-terrorism or the member of a network for nuclear proliferation all have in common? They all use their mobile phone when they are in an aircraft."

So starts the unfolding of another large-scale spy project as initiated by the NSA's Signal Intelligence Directorate. These files are marked TOP SECRET. They are now public, thanks to Snowden, and can be found embedded below.

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SIGINT Analysts: In-flight GSM Is No Joke (SID Today) (PDF)
SIGINT Analysts: In-flight GSM Is No Joke (SID Today) (Text)

Below are a couple of exerts from the document that make clear the possibilities back in 2010. This technology has undoubtedly become far more advanced in the past 6 years, and we have no reason to believe any of these activities have stopped.

"The use of in-flight GSM analysis can help identify the travel of a target — not to mention the other mobile devices (and potentially individuals) onboard the same plane with them."

"All the target has to do is power on his phone and it will register (location update) with one of the 8 Visitor Location Registers ( VLR s) dedicated to handling in-flight GSM traffic. No voice, SMS, or data session (communication) has to occur in order for us to detect that a mobile phone is onboard an airplane. However, in case you are curious, we have picked up Tweets and Facebook updates from individuals cruising 33,000 feet above the earth."

Smartphones are able to be tracked any time they're powered on, regardless of if they're connected to mobile data or making a phone call. This is more than a matter of not having anything to hide, it's a matter of privacy exchanged for connectivity. It really, truly is a situation where users can have one or the other – but not both.

An additional document connected to the one shared above is included below. There you'll see a presentation of the technology and what it was meant for.

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Thieving Magpie: Using on-board GSM/GPRS services to track targets (PDF)
Thieving Magpie: Using on-board GSM/GPRS services to track targets (Text)

Another bit of information was published this week by Le Monde citing documents originally given to Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras with the original set provided by Edward Snowden.

These documents showed that the British spy agency GCHQ went forth with spying activities targeting an array allied countries in Africa. This same set of documents said that GCHQ targeted executives and employees of telecommunications companies.

These executives and employees were targeted due to their access to communications infrastructure. GCHQ focused on South African firm MTN and Kuwait-based Zain, targeting "roaming managers" whose goal it was to organize partnerships between carriers across the planet.