Report: The NSA records all cellphone calls in the Bahamas

The surveillance is done using a "cutting edge tool" called SOMALGET, reported The Intercept, citing documents leaked by Edward Snowden

The U.S. National Security Agency has been recording and archiving "virtually every" cellphone call in the Bahamas without knowledge and permission from the island nation's government, according to a report from The Intercept.

The surveillance is part of an NSA secret system called SOMALGET that tapped into access legally granted to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and opened a "backdoor" into the country's cell telephone network, the article states.

The NSA is able to intercept and record cellphone calls made to, from and within the Bahamas, and access the recordings for 30 days, according to the article, whose revelations are based on documents provided by NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

The article, authored by Ryan Devereaux, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, describes SOMALGET as a "cutting edge tool" that gives the NSA access to the content of the calls, not just to their metadata.

SOMALGET is part of a broader program called MYSTIC in which the NSA secretly monitors the telecom systems not only of the Bahamas but of several other countries as well, including Mexico, the Philippines and Kenya, according to the report.

"All told, the NSA is using MYSTIC to gather personal data on mobile calls placed in countries with a combined population of more than 250 million people. And according to classified documents, the agency is seeking funding to export the sweeping surveillance capability elsewhere," reads the article.

The Bahamas surveillance is focused on locating "international narcotics traffickers and special-interest alien smugglers," according to the story.

The Intercept is published by Pierre Omidyar's First Look Media and was co-created by Greenwald, whose groundbreaking coverage last year in The Guardian about NSA surveillance programs helped that newspaper win a Pulitzer Prize this year. The Intercept was founded primarily to report on documents provided by Snowden.

Monday's article states that the Bahamas SOMALGET surveillance "raises profound questions about the nature and extent of American surveillance abroad" because it isn't driven by anti-terrorism motivations and because the Bahamas is considered a stable democracy that presents no terrorism threat to the U.S.

"By targeting the Bahamas' entire mobile network, the NSA is intentionally collecting and retaining intelligence on millions of people who have not been accused of any crime or terrorist activity," reads the article, noting that almost 5 million Americans visit the Bahamas every year, and that many prominent U.S. citizens have homes there.

"In addition, the program is a serious -- and perhaps illegal -- abuse of the access to international phone networks that other countries willingly grant the United States for legitimate law-enforcement surveillance," the article reads.

Asked for comment by The Intercept, the NSA refused to comment about the Bahamas SOMALGET surveillance but said that "the implication that NSA's foreign intelligence collection is arbitrary and unconstrained is false" and that protects the privacy of "U.S. persons" whose communications are "incidentally collected."

Neither the Bahamian prime minister's office nor the country's national security minister offered any comment to The Intercept.

Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags telecommunicationsecurityU.S. National Security Agencygovernment

More about IDGNational Security AgencyNSA

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Juan Carlos Perez

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    IDG Live Webinar:The right collaboration strategy will help your business take flight

    Speakers - Mike Harris, Engineering Services Manager, Jetstar - Christopher Johnson, IT Director APAC, 20th Century Fox - Brent Maxwell, Director of Information Systems, THE ICONIC - IDG MC/Moderator Anthony Caruana

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place