Operation AURORAGOLD - How NSA Hacking Every Cellphone Network in the World

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In March 2011, the National Security Agency received a secret message prior to the Western intervention in Libya. An intelligence unit in the United States military’s Africa Command required help to hack Libya’s cell phone network to be able to monitor their text messages. This task was easy for the NSA as they had already gotten their hands on technical information about their carrier’s internet system by spying on the documents sent among their company employees which were perfect to provide help to break into the networks.


NSA giving its assistance in this matter was not an isolated case, rather it was part of a much a larger surveillance program. Documents which were part of the material provided to The Intercept, NSA had spied on a number of companies and international organizations to be able to find weaknesses in their cell phone technology which they could exploit. It also reveals how NSA plans on introducing new flaws into communication systems which they can tap into which is seen to be a controversial tactic.

The covert operation is known as AURORAGOLD and has monitored content which has been sent and received by more than 1200 email accounts as part of major cell phone network operators and has also intercepted confidential papers which have helped NSA hack into cell phone networks.

According to a cell phone security expert and cryptographer, Karsten Nohl, the broad scope of the information collected from AURORAGOLD appears to be aimed at ensuring that NSA can access every cell phone network possible. He also said that collecting such an inventory on world networks is likely to have ramifications as well since it does allow the NSA to track and circumvent upgrades in encryption technology, which is used by cell phone companies to prevent calls and texts from being eavesdropped. The operation is one which is carried out by special surveillance units of the NSA whose existence hasn’t been disclosed.



The information which is collected from the companies is passed to the signals development team of the NSA which focuses on infiltrating communication networks. It is also shared with other agencies which are NSA’s counterparts in countries known as the Five Eyes surveillance which include the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

The NSA documents do not have the names of many operations apart from those in Iran, China and Libya. However a world map feature in 2012 suggests that the NSA has network coverage in almost every country in every continent. One of the main targets under the AURORAGOLD program is the GSM Association, headquartered in London which represents the interests of more than 800 cell phone software and internet companies from almost 220 countries.

The NSA focuses on getting their hands on important and obscure information which is circulated among the GSMA’s members which are known as IR.21s most cell phone network operators share IR.21 documents with each other as part of their agreement allowing customers to connect to the foreign networks while they are abroad.

The details of the IR.21 serve as a warning mechanism which flags any new technology, which is used by network operators. This allows NSA to identify any security vulnerabilities in latest communication systems which can be exploited and helps efforts made to introduce further vulnerabilities where they may not even exist.

The IR. 21’s also contain information about the encryption which is used by cell phone companies in order to keep their customers communication safe and private while they are transmitted across the networks. These details are of interest to the NSA as they can help in listening to conversations.

Last year, the Washington Post stated that the NSA had managed in breaking the most common encryption algorithm used which is known as A5/1. The information which is collected under AURORAGOLD however, allows the agency to focus on circumventing stronger and newer versions of the cell phone encryption system such as the A5/3.
Extensive attempts to attack cell phone encryption has been replicated throughout the Five Eyes surveillance alliance as well.

Documents by the NSA show that the focus is placed on collecting details about all technical standards which are used by cell phone operators and their efforts to stay ahead in technology yields surprising results. In 2010, its operatives had found new ways to penetrate the fourth generation of smart phone era technology for surveillance, years before it was adopted by people all around the world.

The agency says that their targets are terrorists, weapons proliferators and other foreign targets and not ordinary people. However the methods used by them and their partners pose significant risks. In April, officials from the White House confirmed that Obama had told the NSA to disclose any vulnerabilities it may find, however qualified that with a loophole flaws should be secretly exploited as long as there is deemed to be a clear national security or law enforcement use.

Author:

Nicki is a tech blogger and gadget lover, she loves to write about Android and iOS security and cell phone spy apps.


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