From as early as 2012, mobile phone activity on commercial airlines has been monitored by the intelligence agencies NSA (US) and GCHQ (UK) with Air France being a top target as of 2005, Le Monde announced yesterday, based on additional information from Edward Snowden’s leaked information.
“In 2009, in an internal document, the NSA emphasizes that in December 2008, 50,000 people had already used their mobile phones in flight, a figure which rose to 100,000 in February 2009,” Le Monde informed.
Thieving Magpie, the program that intercepted in-flight communication, was managed by the GCHQ and built on project Southwinds “to capture the calls as they were transmitted to and from Inmarsat satellites over Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.” The program also tracked persons of interest around the world, provided their phones were on.
Data from voice, SMS, webmail, webchat, social networks, travel apps, Google Maps, currency converters, Skype and others was collected in real time, as long as the aircraft was flying at 10,000 feet. The program could also detect PIN and emails on Blackberry phones. Aeroflot, Qatar Airlines, Saudi Airlines and Oman Air were also monitored, besides Air France, which held particular interest after the CIA labeled it as a “possible terrorist target” since 2003.
“There is absolutely no legal problem in targeting aircraft from these two companies abroad’ and ‘they should be kept under strict surveillance from the point at which they enter American air space,” NSA’s legal department said.