Scrolling news:

France in the NSA’s crosshair : phone networks under surveillance

22nd Oct 2013

Le Monde:

The future will perhaps tell us one day why France has remained so discreet in comparison with Germany or Brazil, for example, after the first revelations about the extent of the American electronic espionage programmes in the world as revealed by Edward Snowden, the ex-employee of an NSA (National Security Agency) sub-contractor. France was also concerned and today has at its disposition tangible proof that its interests are targeted on a daily basis.

According to the documents retrieved from the NSA database by its ex-analyst, telephone communications of French citizens are intercepted on a massive scale. Le Monde has been able to obtain access to documents which describe the techniques used to violate the secrets or simply the private life of French people. Some elements of information about this espionage have been referred to by Der Speigel and The Guardian, but others are, to date, unpublished.

Amongst the thousands of documents extracted from the NSA by its ex-employee there is a graph which describes the extent of telephone monitoring and tapping (DNR – Dial Number Recognition) carried out in France. It can be seen that over a period of thirty days – from 10 December 2012 to 8 January 2013, 70,3 million recordings of French citizens’ telephone data were made by the NSA. This agency has several methods of data collection. According to the elements obtained by Le Monde, when a telephone number is used in France, it activates a signal which automatically triggers the recording of the call. Apparently this surveillance system also picks up SMS messages and their content using key words. Finally, the NSA apparently stores the history of the connections of each target – or the meta-data.

This espionage is listed under the programme US-985D. The precise explanation of this acronym has not been provided, to date, by the Snowden documents nor by the former members of the NSA. By way of comparison, the acronyms used by the NSA for the same type of interception targeting Germany are US-987LA and US-987LB. According to some sources, this series of numbers corresponds to the circle referred to by the United States as the ‘third party’, to which belong France, Germany but also Austria, Poland or again Belgium. ‘The second party’ concerns the English-speaking countries historically close to Washington: the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – this group is known by the name the ‘five eyes’. ‘The first party’ concerns the sixteen American secret services of which today the NSA has become the most important, according to a senior official from the French Intelligence community.

The techniques used for these interceptions appear under the codenames ‘DRTBOX’ and ‘WHITEBOX’. Their characteristics are not known either. But we do know that, thanks to DRTBOX, 62.5 million data were collected in France and that WHITEBOX enables the recording of 7.8 million elements. The documents which Le Monde has been able to see have not enabled the provision of further details on these methods. But they give sufficient explanation to lead us to think that the NSA targets concerned both people suspected of association with terrorist activities as well as people targeted simply because they belong to the worlds of business, politics or French state administration.

The NSA graph shows an average of 3 million data intercepts per day with peaks at almost 7 million on 24 December 2012 and 7 January 2013. But between 28 and 31 December no interception seems to have taken place. This apparent stoppage of activity could be explained, in particular, by the time required at the end of December 2012, for the American Congress to renew section 702 of the law dealing with electronic espionage abroad. Similarly nothing appears on the 3, 5 and 6 January 2013; this time we cannot suggest any plausible reason. Many questions are still posed by this diagram – to start with the precise identity of the targets and the justifications for such a large-scale collection of data in a foreign country which is both sovereign and an ally.

When questioned, the American authorities did not wish to comment on these documents which they considered to be ‘classified’. Nevertheless, they do refer to the statement made on 8 June 2013 by the Director of National Intelligence according to which, ‘the government cannot target anyone under the court-approved procedures for Section 702 collection unless there is an appropriate, and document foreign intelligence purpose for the acquisition (such as for the prevention of terrorism, hostile cyber activities, or nuclear proliferation) and the foreign target is reasonably believed to be outside the United States. We cannot target even foreign persons overseas without a valid foreign intelligence purpose.

France is not the country in which the NSA intercepts the most digital or telephone connections. The ‘Boundless Informant’ system, revealed in June by Edward Snowden to the British daily The Guardian, enabled an overall vision and in real time of the information gathered throughout the world, by means of the various NSA wire-tapping systems. This system gathers not only telephone data (DNR) but also digital data (DNI Digital Network Intelligence). One of the documents which Le Monde was able to consult notes that between 8 February and 8 March 2013, the NSA collected, throughout the world, 124,8 billion telephone data items and 97,1 billion computer data items. In Europe, only Germany and the United Kingdom exceed France in terms of numbers of interceptions.


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