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The latest leaks from the US National Security Agency - that the US and UK have used past summits as an opportunity to spy on foreign officials - have cast a pall over the G8 summit set to start today in Northern Ireland.
The NSA and and its UK counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), conducted extensive surveillance during the 2009 G20 summit in London, according to information Edward Snowden provided to the The Guardian. The surveillance included intercepting communications, hacking smartphones, and even setting up fake Internet cafes where they could steal diplomats' passwords.
In the latest of its reports based on documents from Mr. Snowden, the Guardian writes today that internal GCHQ documents reveal a broad range of surveillance measures rolled out against opponents and allies alike during the summit, including:
• Setting up internet cafes where they used an email interception programme and key-logging software to spy on delegates' use of computers;
• Penetrating the security on delegates' BlackBerrys to monitor their email messages and phone calls;
• Supplying 45 analysts with a live round-the-clock summary of who was phoning who at the summit;
• Targeting the Turkish finance minister and possibly 15 others in his party;
• Receiving reports from an NSA attempt to eavesdrop on the Russian leader, Dmitry Medvedev, as his phone calls passed through satellite links to Moscow.
The information acquired was relayed to analysts "in near real-time" and to "ministers" in the government of then Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The operation ran for at least six months, according to one GCHQ internal review.
Another review said that "in a live situation such as this, intelligence received may be used to influence events on the ground taking place just minutes or hours later. This means that it is not sufficient to mine call records afterwards – real-time tip-off is essential."
The revelations come at an uncomfortable moment for the US and Britain, as both President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron are in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland today for this year's G8 summit, hosted by Britain. The two leaders will likely face difficult questions from their fellow world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose predecessor and current prime minister was one of those being spied upon.
The Guardian reports that according to a briefing prepared by the NSA, the spy organization successfully eavesdropped on the communications of then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during his visit to London for the G20 conference.
Medvedev arrived in London on Wednesday 1 April and the NSA intercepted communications from his delegation the same day, according to the NSA paper, entitled: "Russian Leadership Communications in support of President Dmitry Medvedev at the G20 summit in London – Intercept at Menwith Hill station." ...
The report says: "This is an analysis of signal activity in support of President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to London. The report details a change in the way Russian leadership signals have been normally transmitted. The signal activity was found to be emanating from the Russian embassy in London and the communications are believed to be in support of the Russian president."
The Guardian notes that Russian and American intelligence services can be expected to spy on each other. Public confirmation of such spying is rare and highly embarrassing.
But geopolitical rivals were not the only targets of NSA and GCHQ scrutiny: allies were as well. The Guardian notes that the scrutiny of Turkey – a British and American ally under NATO – appears to have had no security implications at all. Rather, the communications observed were "the everyday talk of financial civil servants and central bankers," apparently watched to give British diplomats a slight advantage in negotiations over financial regulation and reform.
"So why is GCHQ bugging them if the potential gains are so marginal?" the Guardian writes in an editorial. "The answer seems to be because it can, both technically and legally."
The Guardian goes on to say that "[t]he only boundary GCHQ appears to recognise is membership of Five Eyes, the tight coalition of western English-speaking states that share their signals intelligence: the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand." Any surveillance involving the citizen of another member of the coalition requires informing that citizen's government.
The revelations about the GCHQ and NSA efforts may cause trouble on both sides of the Atlantic, due to the closeness of the two organizations. Richard Aldrich, a professor of international security who has studied GCHQ, told The Christian Science Monitor last week that “All intelligence agencies share a lot of intelligence now because the targets are global, but the Anglo-American relationship is special to the extent that, since the 1970s, with processes and projects, at various points GCHQ and NSA are effectively the same organization.”