Snowden Exposed: NSA Operation AURORAGOLD for Hacking Cellphone Networks Worldwide

Edward Snowden latest leaks reveals a worldwide operation by NSA to infiltrate literally all active Cellphone networks on the globe. NSA further weakens encryption and introduces flaws into private networks in addition to monitoring thousands of email accounts of senior executives in telecommunication companies.

News of NSA hacking private computer networks or eavesdropping on internet communications won’t surprise anyone. US intelligence agencies have gone as far as impersonating private entities such as Seattle Times just to spy on real and perceived enemies. What would probably shock you is the extent and scope of NSA’s surveillance programs. Document leaked to the Intercept by Edward Snowden reveals that NSA is not only tracking keystrokes but also tapping on literally every Cellphone network on planet Earth.

Under a program codenamed AURORAGOLD, NSA gathers technical information of the internal working of cellular networks in both foes and allies of United States, including other western powers.  The Documents also unearthed a ploy by NSA to weaken communications networks by introducing bugs to cellphone technologies in foreign countries. This allows the agency to infiltrate these cellphone networks with ease. In some cases the NSA has befriended private cellphone network providers only to later sabotage their encryption programs.

Weakening encryption and subverting defense systems in companies is a disastrous move which gives an undeserved edge to cybercriminals, and risks the lives of the very people NSA claims to protect. “Even if you love the NSA and you say you have nothing to hide, you should be against a policy that introduces security vulnerabilities, because once NSA introduces a weakness, a vulnerability, it’s not only the NSA that can exploit it,” cryptographer Karsten Nohl told the Intercept.

A closer look at AURORAGOLD reveals a plot by NSA to monitor and intercept email communications of senior executive and privileged employees in telecommunication companies, using NSA’s email “Selectors”. The documents reveals that Agency had approximately 363 to 1354 active selectors under AURORAGOLD between November 2011 and April 2012. Information harvested by NSA is shared with its allies in another surveillance Project known as “Fire Eye” comprising of USA, United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

Top targets of AURORAGOLD include the GSM Association (GSMA) which represents over 800 major telecommunication companies in over 220 countries. US carriers such as Verizon Wireless, AT&T and Sprints are members of GSMA.  Other international corporations such Vodafone, Facebook, Intel Microsoft and Samsung are also part of GSMA. This Association deliberation on Issues of technology and discusses policies through its working groups which are apparently the prime targets of AURORAGOLD.

The documents don’t explicitly mention the specific carriers or countries targeted by NSA, expect for a few major network providers in Libya, china and Iran. However, by May 2012 AURORAGOLD had successfully infiltrated a whopping 701 cellphones networks in the world out of all 985 active networks, which represents a 70% worldwide coverage.

Industry experts and Privacy advocates have criticized NSA’s operation AURORAGOLD. The operation to spy on GSMA members is also expected to raise tension between NSA and the National Institute for Standard and Technology (NIST), a US body charged with the responsibility of setting Cybersecurity standards in America. NIST spokeswoman Jennifer Huergo says the Agency is still “not aware” of operation AURORAGOLD targeting GSMA members adding that the organization was looking into the nitty gritty of the operation and will take necessary steps.

Predictably, the NSA has refuted accusations of malicious spying on Cellphones users worldwide. According to NSA spokeswoman, Vanee’ Vines, the agency only “works to identify and report on the communications of valid foreign targets” in order to anticipate global threats to US and its allies.

Vines further said the “NSA collects only those communications that it is authorized by law to collect in response to valid foreign intelligence and counterintelligence requirements.” She however seem to admit the Agency could employ crooked “technical means” to access the private network of its unspecified “foreign targets” in a bid to fulfil its presumed role of protecting the World.

Top/Featured Image: By EFF / Wikipedia (

Lawrence Mwangi Lawrence is a technology and business reporter. He has freelanced for a number of tech sites and magazines. He is a web-enthusiast, with a special interest in Online security, Entrepreneurship and Innovation. When not writing about tech he can be found in a Tennis court or on a chess board.
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