Report: NSA Can Monitor Cell Phones in Flight

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The bulky and outrageously expensive Airfones of the 1990s may be long gone from commercial airplanes in the US, but passengers on some flights overseas can now use their cell phones to make calls, and the National Security Agency has reportedly been monitoring the conversations of those who do.

The revelation came in a leaked NSA internal newsletter from 2010 published by Le Monde on Thursday, which is titled, in part, "In-Flight GSM Is No Joke." It boasts of the agency's ability to monitor any calls, texts, or data used by passengers on flights that offer access to GSM cellular networks.

"What do the President of Pakistan, a cigar smuggler, an arms dealer, a counterterrorism target, and a combating-proliferation target have in common?" the newsletter asks. "They all used their everyday GSM phone during a flight, and were tracked by the SIGINT System, because the phone number was tasked in OCTAVE."

SIGINT is the NSA's term for intelligence derived from electronic signals and systems, and OCTAVE refers to a system of identifying targets for phone tapping. According to Le Monde, the NSA was able to query the GSM systems on board commercial planes above Europe, the Middle East, and Africa every two minutes, and could monitor the voice and data traffic of any phone that was connected.

The airlines involved included Saudi Arabian Air, Emirates, Air France, and Lufthansa. No US airline was mentioned in the newsletter.

The Intercept, which partnered with Le Monde to analyze a trove of documents provided by Edward Snowden related to the GSM monitoring, reported that the UK's Government Communications Headquarters also participated in the program. Both the NSA and the British spy agency identified Air France flights as particularly worth monitoring, based on intelligence that labeled them potential terrorism targets.

NSA reports show that 50,000 people were using their mobile phones in flight as of December 2008, a figure that rose to 100,000 by February 2009, according to The Intercept. Today, airlines have largely moved away from offering cell phone service in flight as they focus their attention on rolling out faster Wi-Fi.

An Air France spokesperson told Le Monde that none of its flights are currently equipped to offer cell phone access. One holdout is Emirates, whose website notes that its passengers can use their mobile phones to make calls on more than 300 flights a day, including all flights operated by the Airbus A380.

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