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This week has brought with it another disconcerting revelation of the extent of the NSA’s spying activities. Le Monde, in collaboration with The Intercept, has published a report that the NSA and its British counterpart, the GCHQ, have been eavesdropping on in-flight phone calls since at least 2005.
The existence of the program, dubbed “Southwinds” by GCHQ, was discovered in an examination of the leaked Edward Snowden documents from 2013. The top secret papers, dating back to 2009, detail NSA efforts to gather “voice communication, data, metadata, and content of calls on board commercial aircraft”, which represented a relatively new opportunity for spying at the time. The internal documents note that in-flight phone use has been growing rapidly, from 50,000 people in December 2008 to 100,000 in February 2009. The NSA attributed the rise to the increase of aircraft equipped with in-flight GSM, lowered costs of such technology, and the decrease of fears that phone calls will interfere with aircraft instruments.
The intelligence agencies were able to collect data from phone calls in “near real time”, as long as the airplane was cruising at above 10,000 feet at the time. In-flight calls were intercepted by secret ground-based stations as they passed through satellites, after which the agencies would cross-reference them against passenger manifests to determine the identity of the caller.
Le Monde has found that Air France flights were particular subjects of interest for US and UK intelligence agencies. Air France, which has supported in-flight calls for nearly 8 years and recently announced that is preparing to unveil onboard Wi-Fi as well, claimed it had no knowledge of the matter.
Experts believe that the coming years will see a massive boom in in-flight phone use, as more and more airlines equip their planes with GSM capabilities, which will likely prove to be an equally massive boon to intelligence agencies.