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NSA Targets Bitcoin

[heading]NSA Targets Bitcoin[/heading]
By: Justin

New revelations in NSA-leaked documents show that the US security agency has interest in spying on Bitcoin and other decentralized digital currencies.

The revelations from Germany’s Der Spiegel implicate the US NSA in spying on banks and credit card transactions, oftentimes in violation of national laws and global regulations. According to internal NSA documents, the European SWIFT financial transcations has been tapped.

The documents state that the agency has in-depth knowledge of the internal processes of credit card companies like Visa and MasterCard. Further, even new alternative currencies like the Internet currency Bitcoin rank among the targets of the American spies, according to Spiegel.

The documents deal with the activities of the United States in the international financial sector, and they show how comprehensively and effectively the intelligence agency can track global flows of money and the store the information in a database.

The particular branch is called “Follow the Money” and it handles these matters. The name of the branch is harkens back to the famous catchphrase by former FBI Associate Director Mark Felt, the whistleblower known as “Deep Throat” who offered the information to Bob Woodward and Carl Berstein, the Washington Post reporters investigating the Watergate scandal in 1972.

Financial transfers are the “Achilles’ heel” of terrorists as NSA analysts note in an internal report. Further fields of activity for the branch deal with tracking illegal arms deliveries and keeping tabs on the increasingly lucrative domain of cybercrime.

Detecting international flows of money could lead to revelations regarding political crimes, exposing acts of genocide and monitoring whether sanctions are respected.

The documents state that the spies’ activities primarily focus on Africa and the Middle East, and their efforts often focus on targets that fall within their legal intelligence-gathering mandate.

In the financial sector, the NSA relies on across-the-board data collection – an approach that apparently leads to conflicts with national laws and international agreements.

Members of the intelligence community even view spying in the global financial system with a certain amount of concern, as revealed by a document from the NSA’s British counterpart – the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) – dealing with “financial data” from a legal viewpoint and examines the organization’s own collaborations with the NSA.

The collection, storage and sharing of “politically sensitive” data is a highly invasive measure since it includes “bulk data – rich personal information. A lot of it is not regarding our targets.”

Secret documents revealing that the keystone NSA financial databse Tracfin, which collects the “Follow the Money” surveillance results on bank transfers, credit card transactions and money transfers, already had 180 million datasets by 2011.

The same figure in 2008 was merely 20 million. According to these documents, the lion’s share of Tracfin data is stored for five years.

The classified documents show that the intelligence agency has several means of accessing the internal data traffic of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), a cooperative used by more than 8,000 banks worldwide for international transactions.

The collected information often details a complete picture of individuals, including movements, contacts and communication behavior. The success stories mentioned by the intelligence agency includes operations that resulted in banks in the Arab world being placed on the US Treasury’s blacklist.

In one case, the NSA provided proof that a bank was involved in illegal arms trading. In another case, a financial institution was providing support to an authoritarian African regime.

Among the most politically explosive revelevations, however, are in regards to the agency’s secret access to the SWIFT networks. Following extensive debates, in 2010 the European Union signed the so-called SWIFT agreement with the US. From its headquarters in Belgium, SWIFT handles international transactions for banks other financial isntitutions.

For years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the US lobbied for access to this international financial data, which Swift virtually monopolizes worldwide. Apparently, when an initial agreement failed in early 2010 after it was vetoed by the European Parliament. Months later, a slightly watered-down SWIFT agreement was signed with the express approval of the German government.

A 2011 document clearly designates the SWIFT computer network as a “target” and the secret data collection also involves the NSA department for “tailored acess operations.”

One various means of accessing the SWIFT information has existed since 2006. Since then, it has been possible to read the “Swift printer traffic from numerous banks.”

Last week, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs said that the Americans should “immediately and precisely tell us what happened, and put all the cards on the table. It it is true “that they share information with other agencies for purposes other than those outlined in the agreement – we will have to consider ending the agreement,” the Swede said.

Jan Philipp Albrecht, a Green Party representative in the European Parliament, discussed of an “open breach of law.” Of the seven faction in the European Parliament, four have joined calls to suspend the agreement.

The documents reveal close involvement of the US Treasury in selecting the program’s spying targets. According to the documents, there is an exchange of personnel in which NSA analysts are transferred for a number of months to the relevavant department in the US Treasury.


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