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US and UK accused of hacking Sim card firm to steal codes

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US and British intelligence agencies hacked into a major manufacturer of Sim cards in order to steal codes that facilitate eavesdropping on mobiles, a US news website says.

The Intercept says the revelations came from US intelligence contractor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The Dutch company allegedly targeted – Gemalto – says it is taking the allegations “very seriously”.

It operates in 85 countries and has more than 40 manufacturing facilities.

The Intercept says that “the great Sim heist” gave US and British surveillance agencies “the potential to secretly monitor a large portion of the world’s cellular communications, including both voice and data”.

It says that among the clients of the Netherlands-based company are AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint and “some 450 wireless network providers around the world”.

The Intercept alleges that the hack organised by Britain’s GCHQ and the US National Security Agency (NSA) began in 2010, and was organised by operatives in the “Mobile Handset Exploitation Team”. Neither agency has commented directly on the allegations.

However GCHQ reiterated that all its activities were “carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate”.

The stolen encryption allowed the agencies to decode data that passes between mobile phones and cell towers. They were able to decrypt calls, texts or emails intercepted out of the air.

A Gemalto spokeswoman said the company was unable to verify whether there had indeed been a breach, and highlighted that other Sim manufacturers could also have been targeted.

She added: “We take this publication very seriously and will devote all resources necessary to fully investigate and understand the scope of such highly sophisticated techniques to try to obtain Sim card data”.

Reacting to The Intercept’s revelations, Eric King, deputy director of the campaign group Privacy International, said the NSA and GCHQ had “lost sight of what the rule of law means and how to weigh what is necessary and proportionate”.

He said trust in the security of our communications systems is “essential for our society and for businesses to operate with confidence”. And the impact of these latest revelations will have “ripples all over the world.”



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