U.K. Hacked Belgian Phone Company in "Op Socialist" Spy Mission, Snowden Reveals

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Sept. 20 2013 10:46 AM

U.K. Hacked Belgian Phone Company in "Op Socialist" Spy Mission, Snowden Reveals

98454984
Belgacom may have had an unwelcome visitor

Photo by DIRK WAEM/AFP/Getty Images

“Operation Socialist” sounds like an anti-communist crackdown orchestrated decades ago by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. In fact, it was the name of a recent British covert surveillance mission that involved spies hacking into a Belgian phone network, according to newly leaked documents.

Ryan Gallagher Ryan Gallagher

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.

The secret files, disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and published by Der Spiegel Friday, show how the British spy agency GCHQ hatched a plot to infiltrate Belgacom, a partly state-owned Belgian telecom company. Belgacom’s customers, according to Der Spiegel, include institutions like the European Commission, the European Council, and the European Parliament. Earlier this week, the telecom company said that it believed it had been subject to a “digital intrusion” and filed a report with the country’s federal prosecutor. But only now have the details about the spy attack surfaced.

image-546815-galleryV9-latt

Slide published by Der Spiegel

Advertisement

The newly revealed documents show GCHQ ‘s “Network Analysis Center” outlining a plan to infiltrate routers used by Belgacom in order to spy on the communications of targets using smartphones. The surveillance was apparently conducted using a so-called “man-in-the-middle” attack, which usually involves covertly intercepting data by using fake security certificates in order to reroute and snoop on data. (As I reported here last week, a similar tactic appears to have by used by the NSA or GCHQ to intercept data sent to Google servers.)

As part of “Op Socialist,” GCHQ was apparently using some surveillance technology that was developed by the NSA. One of the tools used was a kind of specialized spy Trojan called a “Quantum Insert” to target Belgacom employees. According to Der Spiegel, this

“appears to be a method with which the person being targeted, without their knowledge, is redirected to websites that then plant malware on their computers that can then manipulate them. Some of the employees whose computers were infiltrated had ‘good access’ to important parts of Belgacom's infrastructure.”

The disclosures are yet another illustration of the extremely aggressive scope of the clandestine spy operations that have been conducted by both the United Kingdom and the United States. Infiltration of computer networks is usually more commonly associated with Russian and Chinese government hackers, but the British and Americans are at it, too, even targeting their own allies’ communications. The surveillance tactics appear to have few limits, and while government officials have played up the necessity of the spying for counter-terrorism, it is evident that the snooping is often highly political in nature.

It is unclear whether “Operation Socialist” was directed at monitoring left-leaning European politicians or citizens, but that Belgacom was a target at all suggests that the motivation may have been to glean information about officials’ activity in the European Parliament in Brussels. Other recent reports have shown GCHQ has gone after both European Union and United Nations officials and infiltrated government officials’ phones with spyware during a London conference in 2009. The NSA has adopted similar tactics, spying on Brazilian and Mexican leaders’ communications and reportedly hacking Chinese phone networks to monitor text messages.

The European Parliament, prompted by the Snowden leaks, is currently investigating the scope of the surveillance. The infiltration of Belgacom will no doubt form a part of the inquiry. Meanwhile, the Belgian government can be expected to respond angrily, with yet another diplomatic spat developing as a result of the snooping. Even before the Spiegel report was published Friday, the country’s prime minister was gearing up for a fight, describing any potential espionage attack on Belgacom as a “violation of a public company's integrity."

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Lifetime Didn’t Find the Steubenville Rape Case Dramatic Enough. So They Added a Little Self-Immolation.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 19 2014 6:22 PM Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.