Agency hacked into computer networks of 16 firms

Even as a judge in the U.S. deemed the NSA’s surveillance activities ‘legal,’ documents released by the agency’s whistleblower, Edward Snowden. to the German magazine Der Spiegel revealed that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) had pirated an underwater digital transmission cable and hacked into the computer networks of 16 companies managing traffic between France, North Africa and Asia, it was revealed on Monday.

Sources quoted by the magazine said the NSA managed to gain access to the cable SEA-ME-WE 4 linking Southeast Asia and Europe via West Asia, where it linked up with the Orange mobile telephone and data transmission network. Since a massive amount of traffic flows down this cable, such penetration by the NSA allows it to collect a huge amount of metadata. Such data, which appears to be benign because it does not give the conversation transcripts, nevertheless reveals a great deal about internet users and their habits, the French website Mediapart reported.

An estimated 20 of the 250 underwater data transmission cables pass through France, and link Europe to the rest of the world. Some of these cables, like the ACE are of great strategic interest. The 17,000 km-long ACE cable, jointly owned by France Telecom Orange and its subsidiaries and 12 other companies and governments, terminates at Penmarch in Brittany on France’s Atlantic coast. Along its length, it branches off into a dozen or so West African nations, a patch of the continent that France considers to be of special interest.

According to Mediapart, citing documents provided by Mr. Snowden, on February 13, 2013, the Office of Tailored Access Operation managed to collect information on the control systems of the SEA-ME-WE cable. The technique used to penetrate the cable’s security systems was baptised Quantum Insert and had already been used by Britain’s GCHQ to infiltrate the computers of Belgacom and OPEC. The technique consists of luring employees of these companies and organisations towards fake internet sites to introduce Trojan horses into their systems.

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