NSA hacks world: Snowden

HONG KONG, June 13, (Agencies): For months, China has tried to turn the tables on the US to counter accusations that it hacks America’s computers and networks. Now, former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden may have handed Beijing a weapon in its cyber war of words with Washington.
In an interview with the South China Morning Post newspaper, Snowden claims the US has long been attacking a Hong Kong university that routes all Internet traffic in and out of the semiautonomous Chinese region.

Snowden said the National Security Agency’s 61,000 hacking targets around the world include hundreds in Hong Kong and mainland China, the paper reported late Wednesday. The Post, Hong Kong’s main English-language newspaper, said Snowden had presented documents to support those claims, but it did not describe the documents and said it could not verify them.

Snowden’s comments were his first since the 29-year-old American revealed himself as the source of a major leak of top-secret information on US surveillance programs. He flew to Hong Kong from Hawaii before revealing himself, and the Post said he is staying out of sight amid speculation the US may seek his extradition.

Snowden, who worked for the CIA and later as a contractor for the NSA, has revealed details about US spy programs that sweep up millions of Americans’ telephone records, emails and Internet data in the hunt for terrorists. American law enforcement officials are building a case against him but have yet to bring charges.

US officials have disputed some of his claims, particularly his assertion to the Guardian newspaper of Britain that he “had the authority to wiretap anyone.” He also said he made $200,000 a year, although contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, where he worked before being fired this week, said his salary was $122,000.

Snowden’s allegations about US hacking add a new twist to the long-running battle between Washington and Beijing over cybersecurity.

The US been delivering a steady flow of reports accusing China’s government and military of computer-based attacks against America. US officials have said recently that the Chinese seem more open to trying to work with the US to address the problems.

Snowden’s allegations follow comments last week from China’s Internet security chief, who told state media that Beijing has amassed huge amounts of data on US-based hacking. The official held off on blaming the US government, saying it would be irresponsible and that the better approach is to seek to cooperate in the fight against cyberattacks.

On Thursday, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chungying said China is a “major victim” of cyberattacks but did not lay blame.

The reaction was stronger online. Air Force Col. Dai Xu, known for the hawkish opinions he voices on his Sina Weibo microblog, wrote: “I have always said, the United States’ accusations about Chinese hacking attacks have always been a case of a thief crying for another thief to be caught.”

The Post cited Snowden as saying the NSA has been hacking into computers in Hong Kong and mainland China since 2009, citing documents he showed the paper, which it said it could not verify. It didn’t provide further details about the documents.

He said that among the targets was the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which hosts the Hong Kong Internet Exchange, the main hub for the city’s Internet traffic. Set up in 1995, it allows all data between local servers to be routed locally instead of having to pass through exchanges in other countries, including the United States.

“We hack network backbones — like huge Internet routers, basically — that gives us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one,” Snowden told the Post.

According to Snowden’s documents, other NSA hacking targets included Hong Kong public officials, students and businesspeople, as well as targets on the mainland, though they did not include Chinese military systems, the paper said, without providing further details.

A large number of mainland Chinese businesses, including ones that are state-owned, have offices in Hong Kong, a former British colony that passed back to Chinese control in 1997. The People’s Liberation Army has a base in Hong Kong and the Beijing central government and foreign affairs department have offices.

The university is also home to the Satellite Remote Sensing Receiving Station, which captures data and imagery used to monitor the environment and natural disasters in a 2,500-kilometer radius around Hong Kong, an area that includes most of mainland China and Southeast Asia.

Staff at the facilities did not return phone calls.

The school said in a statement that “every effort is made to protect” the exchange, which is monitored around the clock to defend against threats.

“The university has not detected any form of hacking to the network, which has been running normally,” it said.

At a meeting in California last week, President Barack Obama pushed Chinese President Xi Jinping to do more to address online theft of US intellectual and other property coming from China. Xi claimed no responsibility for alleged cyberespionage and said China was also a victim.

Virginia-based cybersecurity firm Mandiant published a detailed report in February directly linking a secret Chinese military unit in Shanghai to years of cyberattacks against US companies.

In November 2011, US intelligence officials publicly accused China for the first time of stealing American high-tech data for economic gain.

FBI Director Robert Mueller said on Thursday that the US government is doing everything it can to hold Snowden accountable for splashing surveillance secrets across the pages of newspapers worldwide.
Mueller said at a US House Judiciary Committee hearing that Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, harmed national security when he divulged the secrets.

“As to the individual who has admitted making these disclosures, he is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation,” Mueller said without naming Snowden.

Mueller added: “We are taking all necessary steps to hold the person responsible for these disclosures.”
Snowden is believed to be in Hong Kong after flying there last month from Hawaii, where he lived. He has said he plans to request asylum and that he divulged secrets to Britain’s Guardian newspaper and the Washington Post because he believed the US surveillance programs were illegal and intrusive.
The US Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into the alleged disclosure of classified information. It has not revealed any charges or a request to extradite Snowden.

Mueller added his voice to the Obama administration’s defense of the surveillance programs, which he said comply in full with US law and with basic rights guaranteed under the Constitution.

The information in a massive government database of daily telephone records has been instrumental in identifying people who sought to harm Americans, Mueller said.

The program collects “no content whatsoever” beyond data such as numbers called and the time and length of calls, he said.

Meanwhile, surveillance programmes that trample on people’s right to privacy in the name of security actually risk damaging the fight against terrorism, UN rights chief Navi Pillay warned Thursday.

“Concerns have been expressed over surveillance regimes adopted by some states without adequate safeguards to protect individuals’ right to privacy,” Pillay told a UN counter-terrorism conference in Geneva.

“If our goal in countering terrorism is to provide for the security of individuals and preserve the rule of law, such practices are... counterproductive,” she said.

Her comments came shortly before the FBI announced it had launched a criminal investigation against an American government subcontractor after he exposed a massive US surveillance operation.

Edward Snowden embarrassed and infuriated President Barack Obama’s administration by revealing that the National Security Agency had secretly monitored phone and Internet data.

The NSA said date from the programme had thwarted dozens of potential attacks.

But Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter told conference: “The quest for security must not lead to excessive infringements of the right to privacy.”

Switzerland this week asked Washington for explanations about Snowden’s revelations, especially on an alleged CIA blackmail operation to spy on its banks while he was stationed in Geneva as a diplomatic attache from 2007 to 2009.

“Would we have a better society if honest citizens were subjected to constant surveillance by governments, with all the abuses that this may bring?” Burkhalter said. “In Switzerland’s view, the answer is definitely no.”

UN Under Secretary General Jeffrey Feltman said: “If we allow compromise on human rights, we are not countering terrorism but letting it get its way.

“When the principles enshrined in the human rights instruments are disrespected, extremism tends to thrive,” said Feltman, who heads the world body’s Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force Office (CTITF).

Elsewhere, the new billion-dollar epicenter for fighting global cyberthreats sits just south of Salt Lake City, tucked away on a militia base at the foot of snow-capped mountains. The long, squat buildings are filled with super-powered computers designed to store massive amounts of information gathered secretly from phone calls and emails.

Two small, weathered signs in the sagebrush greet interlopers to this place with a stark warning: “Military reservation. No trespassing.” But there is no visible marker bearing the facility’s name and operator: The Utah Data Center, run by the National Security Agency.

When it opens this autumn, the facility will be the NSA’s largest data storage center in the US Just don’t ask Utah officials, and certainly not the residents of tiny Bluffdale, just north of the new center, to tell you exactly what will go on inside. They either don’t know, or aren’t saying. And the NSA is famously tight-lipped.

“We know it’s a spy center. But who are they spying on?” said Connie Robbins, an upholstery shop owner who lives in Bluffdale, a community of 8,000 south of Salt Lake City that is known for its rodeo and annual Old West Days.

The dearth of information has perpetuated a mystery that has spawned dozens of theories and a spoof website that even includes a phony code name for the facility: “Bumblehive,” a play on Utah’s nickname of the “Beehive State.”

Last week’s revelation that the NSA is collecting millions of US phone records along with digital communications stored by nine major Internet providers illustrates how aggressively personal information is being congregated and analyzed — and shines a brighter light on what will be going on in secret at the Utah facility, scheduled to open in October.

NSA officials say the center will play a key role in the US effort to protect national security networks, and allow US authorities to monitor for potential cyberthreats. In an email, agency spokeswoman Vanee Vines said that “many unfounded allegations have been made about the planned activities” of the center.
“NSA would like to confirm, on the record, that the Utah Data Center is a state-of-the-art data facility designed to support the US intelligence community’s efforts to further strengthen and protect the nation. Its operations will be lawfully conducted in accordance with US laws and policies,” Vines wrote.
She provided no additional details, however.

Richard “Dickie” George, who retired from the NSA in 2011 after 40 years, said the facility isn’t nearly as interesting or mysterious as some think. He calls it little more than a giant storeroom. Inundated with increasing volumes of secretly taped phone calls, intercepted emails and poached records of online purchases, the NSA needed a mega-warehouse to put it all, he said.

“It’s just a big file cabinet out in the Western area,” said George, once a senior technical leader at the agency. “There is no spying going on there.”

NSA agents elsewhere will comb through the data stored in Utah as the agency attempts to understand how terrorist groups operate and who plays what roles, George said. Emails, articles, websites and videos on the Internet may hold clues about such activities, he said.

James Bamford, the author of several books on the NSA who last year wrote about the Utah center in Wired magazine, asserts that the facility will serve as the central depository for everything the NSA intercepts, functioning as the agency’s “cloud.” Analysts at NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, and other agency sites will be able to access the information by way of secure, fiber-optic cables, he said.

The mammoth center, which cost some $1.7 billion, will allow the agency to store more and, perhaps more importantly, keep information for much longer. Bamford theorizes the facility will be able to hold a so-called yottabyte of information, the largest measurement computer scientists have. A yottabyte is equal to 500 quintillion pages of text, said Bamford, who believes the Utah center will store those phone records NSA gathered from Verizon Communications.

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