Does connecting to in-flight Wi-Fi allow government intelligence agencies to spy on your every digital move? The idea may sound more sci-fi thriller than reality, but classified documents leaked by National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden signal that it’s been happening for years, according to a report in the French newspaper Le Monde.
An internal NSA newsletter from 2010, which is now public due to the Snowden leaks, appears to confirm the practice, in part through a riddle: “What do the President of Pakistan, a cigar smuggler, an arms dealer, a counterterrorism target, and a combatting proliferation target have in common?” the document says. “They all used their everyday GSM phone during a flight, and were tracked by the SIGINT system.”
GSM stands for Global System for Mobile communication, a worldwide digital wireless phone technology. SIGINT represents “intelligence derived from electronic signals and systems used by foreign targets,” per the NSA.
In the newsletter, the NSA talks about the increasing amount of in-flight phone users, and even uses jokes to get its point across.
“The volume of in-flight GSM users has increased from hundreds per month to thousands per day over the past two years and is still climbing… In-flight GSM hasn’t reached its cruising altitude yet (ha-ha).”
According to Le Monde, the NSA has been able to spy on in-flight phones cruising above 10,000 feet since 2005.
But it’s not just the U.S. government that’s doing it—more leaked documents, this time from the U.K.’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), refer to collecting in-flight cell-phone data from satellites providing phone service across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
The prevalence of Wi-Fi scams have made it clear that public and in-flight Wi-Fi isn’t secure, but the idea of in-flight Wi-Fi as a spy tool for government agencies is a new concept. And while the practice may sound like an invasion of privacy, the GCHQ and NSA have a different take.
According to Le Monde, “GCHQ responded to Le Monde with a statement that it does not comment on intelligence matters and that its activities are ‘authorized, necessary and proportionate’ and ‘entirely compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.’ NSA said its activities complied with U.S. law and policy and declined to comment further.”
The report appeared this morning on American news site The Intercept, which partnered with Le Monde for the story. The Intercept is headed by Glenn Greenwald, one of the former Guardian journalists who broke Snowden’s story against the NSA in 2013.
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