NSA targeted energy firms, diplomats, ATMs

In this file photo, an employee works on an oil platform of Brazil’s oil giant Petrobas, near Vitoria, Brazil. The U.S. National Security Agency attacked the internal computers of Petrobras, as part of a programme that also targeted several other organisations, it has been revealed.   | Photo Credit: Eraldo Peres

The assurance given by American officials on August 30 that its Department of Defence does not “engage in economic espionage in any domain, including cyber” looked hollow on Sunday as it was revealed that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) attacked the internal computers of Petrobras, the Brazilian oil giant, as part of a programme that also targeted foreign government networks, airlines, energy companies and financial organisations. The NSA’s British counterpart, GCHQ, even targeted the secure international lines through which people do their financial transactions on automated teller machines (ATMs).

In a report for Globo TV on Sunday night, The Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has been publishing top secret documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, revealed that the name of Petrobras appears on several slides of a training programme for new agents. The documents showed that companies targeted by the NSA are monitored by interception of all communications and IP addresses and identification of each computer on the network.

Since it was revealed last week that the NSA had targeted personal phones and emails of President Dilma Rousseff, Brazilian officials suspected that the spying was linked to the auction of the country’s oil deposits. Brazil’s so-called sub-salt polygon, where many of the new finds have been discovered, may contain as much as 100 billion barrels of oil. One find alone, the giant Libra field, has estimated reserves of up to 12 billion barrels of oil, which is enough to supply all U.S. oil needs for two years. This field is scheduled for auction next month.

Though the NSA documents do not show any information on the extent of spying or how much of the data contained in the company’s computers was accessed by the Americans, Brazilian officials are likely to seek an urgent explanation from Washington.

Petrobras, the partly state-owned company with an annual profit of $120 billion, is a world leader in deep-sea oil exploration. The vast reserves of oil it found just off the Rio coast in 2008 has made Brazil one of the biggest sources of petrol, with companies from U.S., Europe and China competing with each other for oil fields. Even India has substantial interest in Petrobras’s fields. India’s ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL), the overseas arm of state explorer Oil & Natural Gas Corporation, which maintains an office here managed by two senior offices, already holds stakes in two blocks and it’s also keeping an eye on future auctions, information about which may have been picked by the NSA.

The latest NSA reports have raised hackles in Brazil, which has hardened its stand on the issue of U.S. spying. Speaking on the Globo programme, former Petrobras director Roberto Villa said the forthcoming auctions by the oil firm were the “greatest in the history of oil exploration.” If stolen, Mr. Villa said, the information about the blocks could give undue advantage to some companies. “Someone would have an edge. If this information was leaked and someone else has obtained it, he would be in a privileged position at the auction. He’ll know where to invest and where not to. It’s a handy little secret,” said the former chief of Petrobras.

New documents

The new documents revealed on Sunday will certainly intensify the already existing tensions between Brazil and U.S., but it also has implications for other countries, including India. The top-secret presentation, revealed by Globo TV, explained how the NSA was intercepting data through an attack known as “Man in the Middle” and rerouting it to the NSA central. Then, the NSA presentation shows in detail how the data of a chosen target is rerouted through spy filters beginning at the very source, until they reach the NSA’s supercomputers.

Using this method, the NSA targeted “foreign government networks”, “airlines”, “energy companies” — like Petrobras — and “financial organisations.”

The NSA programs that were exposed by Greenwald also targeted French diplomats — with access to the private network of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France — and the Swift network that connects more than 10,000 banks in 212 countries and provides communications that enable international financial transactions. All transfers of money between banks across national borders goes through Swift.

The NSA presentation also contains documents prepared by GCHQ, the British Spy agency which has been working as an NSA partner. Through its two programs, called “Flying Pig” and “Hush Puppy”, the British agency has been monitoring TLS/SSL, the private networks which carry supposedly secure information. TLS/SSL networks are also the security system used in financial transactions, such as when someone accesses their bank account through an ATM. On the maps of the top-secret presentation, India too figures prominently, with several network lines connecting Mumbai with locations in the Middle East and Chennai with South-East Asia.


>>In “NSA targeted energy firms, diplomats, ATMs” (Sept. 10, 2013) the full form of ATM was given as automatic teller machines. It should have been automated teller machines.

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2022 1:46:20 PM |

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