NSA’s spying and surveillance capabilities are not hidden from anyone now especially when it comes to cell phone conversations made by unsuspecting local citizens. However, what comes as a great surprise is that NSA and the British Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) have been listening to in-flight cell phone conversations of passengers since 2005. This means, for more than a decade, the privacy of cell phone users is being violated without their knowledge or consent.
The Intercept has revealed that there has been a secret program called “Southwinds” that is aimed at gathering all sorts of cellular communications from commercial air flights. The collected data includes “voice communication, data, metadata and content of calls.”
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It is true that cell phone communications are prohibited on a majority of commercial flights but according to an NSA document, the agency recorded data of about 100,000 passengers who used their mobiles while flying in February 2009.
However, the agencies were already intercepting in-flight calls on Air France since 2005. In its heydays, the program would collect data in “near real-time,” and cell connections were utilized to track the movements of the plane after every two minutes. The only condition required was that the plane should be flying above 10,000 feet. When this condition was met, intercepting calls was possible from ground-based stations whenever the plane cruised through a satellite. Then the agencies would counter-check the call by inspecting the passengers’ list on board the flight and identify the person making the call.
The practice is still ongoing even today. The report states that latest records were taken in 2012.
One of the documents even revealed the list of airlines offering in-flight GSM and flying to “target-rich” areas.
Emirates, Wataniya Air, Air Blue, Royal Jordanian and 20 other airlines that offer in-flight GSM.
A boom is also expected in in-flight mobile phone usage, which would most certainly increase the potential for programs like Southwinds. Le Monde’s Jacques Follorou wrote that this boom will “further extend the scope of espionage by providing a pool of potential targets comprising several hundreds of thousands of people, a level of popularity anticipated by the NSA seven years ago.”
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This is not the first time when NSA and GCHQ worked together to go on a spying spree. Previously, both agencies systematically hacked Israeli drones from within Cyprus. The footages of those hacked drones were leaked by Edward Snowden.