NSA, GCHQ compromised millions of phone SIM cards

American and British spies broke into the network of a multinational cellphone-chip producer and stole encryption keys that allow them to hack into people’s phones, according to the Intercept.

News of the breach comes just days after President Barack Obama sought to encourage corporations to share cybersecurity data with the federal government.

The encryption keys stolen by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and its British counterpart, the Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ), would allow the intelligence agencies to bypass cellphone security and monitor calls without seeking the permission of the courts or the phone companies.

“Once you have the keys, decrypting traffic is trivial,” Christopher Soghoian, the principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Intercept. “The news of this key theft will send a shock wave through the security community.”

According to top-secret documents provided by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden, a joint unit consisting of operatives from the NSA and GCHQ hacked into Gemlato, a SIM card manufacturer incorporated in the Netherlands. The breach gave the agencies the ability to secretly monitor “a large portion of the world’s cellular communications,” the Intercept reported.

Both voice and data communications tied to the affected units are compromised. The bulk theft would also enable the NSA to unlock communications previously intercepted by the spy agency but rendered unreadable without the encryption keys.

According to the documents, agency officials hacked into the email and Facebook accounts of Gemalto employees, giving them the data necessary to break into the company’s network. GCHQ officials wrote that they had “successfully implanted several machines” and claimed they had compromised Gemalto’s entire network.

News of the breach and the invasive powers granted the NSA because of it are unlikely to sit well with tech industry leaders. For at least the past two weeks, the White House has been trying to convince Silicon Valley’s largest companies to increase cooperation with the government to further mitigate cybersecurity threats.

The White House organized a cybersecurity and consumer-protection summit at Stanford University last Friday, where Obama signed an executive order meant to encourage the sharing of information between private-sector companies and the government. 

Thursday’s revelations, however, call into question the federal government’s commitment to protecting the security of corporations and their customers. 

Photo by Luciano Belviso/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Dell Cameron

Dell Cameron

Dell Cameron was a reporter at the Daily Dot who covered security and politics. In 2015, he revealed the existence of an American hacker on the U.S. government's terrorist watchlist. He is a co-author of the Sabu Files, an award-nominated investigation into the FBI's use of cyber-informants. He became a staff writer at Gizmodo in 2017.