The NSA and US DEA trick contractors working for the Bahamian phone companies into letting them record the full audio of every call placed in the Bahamas, according to newly published Snowden leaks released in an article in The Intercept. The NSA exploits the "lawful interception" system for conducting wiretaps without having to notify phone companies in order to harvest the full run of cellular calls, apparently as an engineering proof-of-concept in order to scale the program up to larger nations. The Bahamas is an ally of the US, identified by the State Department to be a "stable democracy that shares democratic principles, personal freedoms, and rule of law with the United States."
It's not clear whether the DEA conducts "parallel construction" with the NSA intelligence (this is when the DEA overtly takes a warrant to get intelligence it already has through an NSA covert operation). The phone calls are intercepted through two NSA programs: MYSTIC (which conducts analysis) and SOMALGET (which intercepts and stores the calls). These programs are used to capture the full audio of all cellular calls in another unnamed country, and are used to analyze metadata in the Philippines, Mexico and Kenya.
The NSA documents reveal that the intelligence gathered in the Bahamas did not focus on money-launderers and tax-haven banks — rather, they are mostly used to catch drug traffickers.
According to the NSA documents, MYSTIC targets calls and other data transmitted on Global System for Mobile Communications networks – the primary framework used for cell phone calls worldwide. In the Philippines, MYSTIC collects "GSM, Short Message Service (SMS) and Call Detail Records" via access provided by a "DSD asset in a Philippine provider site." (The DSD refers to the Defence Signals Directorate, an arm of Australian intelligence. The Australian consulate in New York declined to comment.) The operation in Kenya is "sponsored" by the CIA, according to the documents, and collects "GSM metadata with the potential for content at a later date." The Mexican operation is likewise sponsored by the CIA. The documents don't say how or under what pretenses the agency is gathering call data in those countries.
In the Bahamas, the documents say, the NSA intercepts GSM data that is transmitted over what is known as the "A link"–or "A interface"–a core component of many mobile networks. The A link transfers data between two crucial parts of GSM networks – the base station subsystem, where phones in the field communicate with cell towers, and the network subsystem, which routes calls and text messages to the appropriate destination. "It's where all of the telephone traffic goes," says the former engineer.
Punching into this portion of a county's mobile network would give the NSA access to a virtually non-stop stream of communications. It would also require powerful technology.
"I seriously don't think that would be your run-of-the-mill legal interception equipment," says the former engineer, who worked with hardware and software that typically maxed out at 1,000 intercepts. The NSA, by contrast, is recording and storing tens of millions of calls – "mass surveillance," he observes, that goes far beyond the standard practices for lawful interception recognized around the world.
Data Pirates of the Caribbean: The NSA Is Recording Every Cell Phone Call in the Bahamas
[Ryan Devereaux, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras/The Intercept]