Australian spies have obtained almost two million “master keys” used to secure private communications from Indonesia’s Telkomsel mobile network and developed ways to decrypt almost all of them, according to a report based on documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
In a period of deteriorating relations between the Australian and Indonesian governments – Australia’s ambassador in Jakarta was summoned for a “dressing down” last week – the documents, reported in The New York Times, contain further revelations of Australian spying activities and intelligence-sharing with the US.
The report says Australian spies were listening in on conversations between Indonesian government officials and an American legal team, engaged to advised on trade disputes. The Australians offered to share the information back to the US National Security Agency, according to a document dated from February 2013.
The documents do not state which law firm was involved, although the NYT reports that in the period in question, a firm called Mayer Brown was retained by Indonesia to advise on trade disputes.
Those disputes included a disagreement between Jakarta and Canberra over Australia’s new plain-packaging laws for cigarettes.
It’s one of the rare times that eavesdropping on US citizens by the NSA’s intelligence-gathering operations have been exposed, and also shows an extensive economic espionage program between the US and its allies.
Relations between Indonesia and Australia have been increasingly strained in recent months. Last year it emerged that Australian spies had tried to tap the phone of the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and other key ministers in his government.
The ministerial phone-tapping revelations, also based on documents leaked by Snowden, emerged as Australia had started to implement a tough new border protection regime involving sending boats carrying asylum seekers trying to reach Australia back to Indonesia waters.
Last week Australia’s ambassador in Jakarta was summoned by Indonesia’s foreign minister to be told that a new tactic of sending asylum seekers back to Indonesia using special lifeboats was an “unacceptable” escalation in the border protection policy.
Deputy opposition leader Tanya Plibersek said yesterday that Australia and Indonesia were now in “open conflict” and called on the government to start repairing the relationship.
The further revelations of Australia’s intelligence-sharing, including what appears to be over trade disputes, could complicate diplomatic effort.
The NYT reports:
The N.S.A. has given the Australians access to bulk call data from Indosat, an Indonesian telecommunications provider, according to a 2012 agency document. That includes data on Indonesian government officials in various ministries, the document states.
The Australians have obtained nearly 1.8 million encrypted master keys, which are used to protect private communications, from the Telkomsel mobile telephone network in Indonesia, and developed a way to decrypt almost all of them, according to a 2013 N.S.A. document.
Telkomsel is Indonesia’s largest mobile network, and one of the six largest telcos in the world.
The NYT report says most of the collaboration between the Australian Signals Directorate and the NSA “is focused on Asia, with China and Indonesia receiving special attention.”