As tensions mount between the United States and other countries over the NSA’s once-secret spying programs, German news magazine Der Spiegel reported earlier today that the NSA has been spying on the goings-on at the United Nations’ New York headquarters for nearly a year.
Der Spiegel cites a multitude of documents that “stemmed” from security-consultant-turned-leaker Edward Snowden which purport (among other things) that the NSA first managed to crack the UN’s video conferencing system during the summer of 2012.
Some of the documents obtained by Der Spiegel speak nicely to the sort of banality those involved ascribed to their actions — “The data traffic gives us internal video teleconferences of the United Nations (yay!),” one of them reads. In the weeks that followed the number of decrypted communications surged from 12 to 458 (and almost assuredly grew from there) and it appears that the NSA has only expanded its surveillance of extra-national bodies.
As it turns out, the UN wasn’t the only organization targeted by the NSA in this manner — still more documents obtained by Der Spiegel speak to the existence of a program called the Special Collection Service that allows the agency to monitor goings-on in 80 embassies and consulates across the globe. Also on that list of targets is the International Atomic Energy Agency and the European Union, though at this point it’s unclear what exactly the NSA has managed to dig up on either of those bodies. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Der Spiegel notes that SCS’s operation is a well-organized one that “has little or nothing to do with warding off terrorists.”
As disconcerting as the revelation may be, this is hardly the first time the United Nations has been the stage for a bit of international espionage. British Parliament member Clare Short blew the whistle in 2004 on a UK intelligence effort that saw British agents spying on then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and The Observer published a leaked memo from a senior NSA official just prior to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 asking staffers to increase surveillance on security counsel members and other UN officials.