Snowden leak bares US spying on Philippines' text messages

Camille Diola - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines is among the countries being secretly monitored by a telecommunications spying program of the US National Security Agency (NSA), as revealed by whistleblower and fugitive Edward Snowden.

Online publication The Intercept, a platform releasing Snowden's leaks, alleged in a post on Tuesday (Manila time) that NSA's cutting-edge surveillance program MYSTIC collects "metadata" and content from mobile networks in the Caribbean, Mexico, Kenya, the Philippines and another unnamed country.

"All told, the NSA is using MYSTIC to gather personal data on mobile calls placed in countries with a combined population of more than 250 million people," The Intercept writers Ryan Devereaux, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras said in the report.

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Metadata are information revealing message or call's time stamp, source and destination--information collected by MYSTIC that may be authorized by the host country and even by the telecommunications firms. 

A 2013 budget justification of the US intelligence community cites the need to fund MYSTIC capable of providing "comprehensive metadata access and content against targeted communications in ___, Kenya, Caribbean, Mexico, and the Philippines."

An entry from the US intelligence community's 2013 budget justification pertaining to the MYSTIC program.

The program also offers "near real-time, complete access to the additional target country's GSM networks," according to the document leaked by Snowden.

Another classified document, provided by Snowden, provides a NSA Special Source Operations' description of MYSTIC as a "program for embedded collection systems overtly installed on target networks predominantly for collection and processing of wireless/mobile communications networks."

Snippet from an undated NSA Special Source Operations memo

"The overt purpose is for legitimate commercial services for the telco's themselves. Our covert mission is the provision of SIGINT," it continued, referring to signals intelligence.

There is no indication  whether MYSTIC also intercepts phone calls and voice data in the Philippines, but it does pull text messaging data.

A separate document reveals an alleged "DSD asset in a Philippine provider site" working on an operation collecting GSM, short message service of SMS and call detail records.

Definition of terms related to the MYSTIC program, from the NSA glossary

"It will soon become a source of lucrative intelligence for terrorist activities in southern Philippines," the document, providing an NSA glossary of cryptic terms.

The report said DSD refers to Defense Signals Directorate, "an arm of the Australian intelligence. (The Australian consulate in New York declined to comment)."

The Intercept also suspects that surveillance in the Philippines is part of the US' show of support for the country's campaign against armed Islam extremists in Mindanao.

The Intercept said it asked NSA to comment, but it only said it does not collect foreign intelligence in an arbitrary and unconstrained way as it follows protocols to protect people's privacy.

"Informed about the NSA’s spying, neither the Bahamian prime minister’s office nor the country’s national security minister had any comment. The embassies of Mexico, Kenya, and the Philippines did not respond to phone messages and emails," the report added.

Philippine laws prohibit wire tapping and related violations not authorized by all parties concerned. Republic Act No. 4200 or the Anti Wire-Tapping Law, however, only covers the monitoring and interception of content.

In February, the Supreme Court upheld penalties under the assailed Republic Act 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act for those who aid and abet activities of illegal access, illegal interception, data interference and system interference, among others.











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