SIM card provider Gemalto has admitted that the hacking operation by the NSA and GCHQ did happen between 2010 and 2011. According to the company, India was among the nine countries where mobile operators were targeted, along with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Serbia and Iran among others.
The NSA (National Security Agency) is a US intelligence agency responsible for monitoring, collecting and analysing information for foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes for the US government, while the GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) is a British intelligence agency responsible for the same, for the British government.
Gemalto’s report also mentions that the interception technique did not work with operators using secure data exchange methods and in particular it “failed to produce results against Pakistani networks”. However it says nothing of Indian operators. Gemalto goes on to explain that the intelligence services would only be able to spy on communications on second generation 2G mobile networks and that 3G and 4G networks are not vulnerable to this type of attack.
The hacking of Gemalto’s internal network by American and British spies back in 2010-11 came to light just last week, after The Intercept published a piece based on documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden. The documents revealed the agencies stole encryption keys which could monitor mobile communications without seeking or receiving approval from telecom companies and governments. According to one secret GCHQ slide, the British intelligence agency penetrated Gemalto’s internal networks, planting malware on several computers, giving GCHQ secret access.
Its not clear which mobile operators are affected by the hack in India, although Gemalto is known to provide SIM cards to Vodafone internationally. The company also provides smart cards with biometric authentication to FINO PayTech, which recently announced its entry in the race for payment banks license, and supplies e-passports solutions to the Government of India and 16 other countries. Neither of these services provided by the company are known to be compromised by the hack.
Gemalto currently makes and provides chips used in mobile phones and credit cards to around 450 wireless networks globally. The company operates in 85 countries and claims to have 40 manufacturing facilities globally.
In June last year, we had reported that India may be working with the NSA to intercept email, chat, VPN data, VoIP and voice call records among others. This was also based on documents that were released by Edward Snowden to Danish newspaper Dagbladet Information and The Intercept. According to these documents, India is an “Approved SIGINT partner” with the NSA. SIGINT is a common term used in intelligence circles that stands for signals Intelligence, and refers to capturing of communication between two people.
Another document leaked by Snowden showed that Indian embassy in US was also monitored. The NSA used implants (sensors and recording devices), screen grabs, created images of disks and used ‘data from magnetic emanations’ to carry out the monitoring.
Note that the Indian government has also been building a Central Monitoring System (CMS) for monitoring all online communication in India, Netra for keyword based tracking of online content and NATGRID for linking all available personal data of people in India. Last year, India made it to the Enemies of the Internet report published by Reporters Without Borders for the first time, along with US, UK and Russia, for creating these three monitoring tools.