Former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden. Photo: Getty Images
Australian spies are helping the United States secretly monitor telephone calls across the Philippines, leaked US intelligence documents reveal.
According to top secret US National Security Agency documents disclosed by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, Australia's electronic spy agency, the Australian Signals Directorate supports a top secret NSA intelligence collection program codenamed MYSTIC, which harvests telecommunications "metadata" – in several countries, including the Philippines.
The previously top secret documents published by The Intercept news website reveal the MYSTIC program uses data collection systems that are installed in mobile phones for legitimate commercial services, but which also serve a "covert mission ... the provision of SIGINT [signals intelligence]".
Collection of telecommunications metadata reveals the times, source and destination of phone calls and text messages and provides intimate detail on individuals and their relationships with other people, businesses and other organisations.
A 2013 NSA document shows that comprehensive MYSTIC harvesting of telecommunications data in the Philippines is carried out by the Australian Signals Directorate, formerly known as the Defence Signals Directorate, which is a so-called "5-eyes" partner with its American counterpart.
Through an operation codenamed VENATOR, Australian and US access to Philippine telecommunications data is provided "via [a] DSD asset in a Philippine provider site" which collects "Philippine GSM, Short Message Service (SMS) and Call Detail Records." GSM or "Global System for Mobile" communications is the most widely used digital cellular communications technology in the world today.
In 2013 the NSA noted that the covert Australian monitoring operation "will soon become a source of lucrative intelligence" about "terrorist activities in Southern Philippines".
However, the leaked documents also make it clear that MYSTIC intelligence is collected not by targeting individual suspects but through the bulk collection of telephone call data across entire networks and countries, as well as international telecommunications traffic.
The documents show that MYSTIC operations cover the Philippines, Mexico, Kenya and another country the name of which has been redacted by The Intercept.
Access to the telecommunications networks in Kenya and Mexico is "sponsored" by the CIA, while US Drug Enforcement Agency operations provide a covert "backdoor" into the telecommunication networks of the Bahamas.
In the case of the Bahamas and the unnamed country, the NSA's operations extend beyond the collection of metadata to "full-take audio" – the interception of the content of all telephone calls made in the country with the recordings held in a 30-day buffer. The NSA's audio collection system, codenamed SOMALGET, processes over 100 million calls per day.
The disclosure of the Australian Signals Directorate's involvement in MYSTIC telecommunications data collection in the Philippines is the latest in a series of revelations about Australian signals intelligence operations in South East Asia through disclosures from Mr Snowden and information from other sources.
This has included revelations that the Australian and US embassies in Jakarta house covert electronic surveillance facilities, code-named STATEROOM, and that theAustralia intercepted the mobile phones of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and many of his closest political associates – a disclosure that has strained diplomatic relations between Jakarta and Canberra.
According to a 2012 NSA document, the Australian Signals Directorate also accesses bulk call data from Indosat, Indonesia's domestic satellite telecommunications provider, including data on Indonesian officials in various government ministries. Another 2013 document states that the Directorate obtained nearly 1.8 million encrypted master keys, which are used to protect private communications, from the Telkomsel mobile telephone network in Indonesia, and developed a way to decrypt almost all of them.
The Australian government has repeatedly refused to comment on intelligence activities revealed by the documents leaked by Mr Snowden. Asked about the latest revelation concerning the Australian Signals Directorate's involvement in the Philippines, a Defence Department spokesperson said, "Defence does not comment on intelligence matters".