Incident Response, TDR

NSA, privacy group, respond to cell phone recordings in Bahamas

The controversy surrounding the NSA and its mass surveillance efforts expanded to the Caribbean on Monday as a report by Glenn Greenwald and others at The Intercept revealed that the federal agency has been secretly recording cell phone conversations in the Bahamas.

Practically every single call made into, out of and within the Bahamas is being logged so that analysts can pull up recordings at will for intelligence gathering purposes, the report indicates, citing documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

“All of NSA's efforts are strictly conducted under the rule of law and provide appropriate protection for privacy rights,” according to a Tuesday NSA statement emailed to, which did not specifically answer a question asking if The Intercept report was true.

In the statement, the agency said it ensures the protection of the U.S. and its allies by pursuing “valid foreign intelligence targets,” as well as by working with other nations under “specific and regulated conditions.”

According to The Intercept report, the NSA surveillance had been carried out unbeknownst to officials in the Bahamas using an advanced surveillance system known as SOMALGET, which enables the NSA to record and replay all cell phone calls for about a month.

The office of Frederick Mitchell, Bahamas Minister of Foreign Affairs & Immigration, did not respond to a request for comment, but Mitchell was reportedly seeking further information from the U.S. government on Tuesday.

The Snowden documents did not provide Greenwald and his team enough information to pinpoint exactly how the NSA is recording calls, but reports did indicate that the agency worked with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to open backdoors in the Bahamas' cell phone network.

According to The Intercept report, a memo suggests that SOMALGET data is compiled through DEA “accesses,” or “lawful intercepts,” which is possible because international law enforcement cooperation enables the DEA to tap overseas phone networks.

“The SOMALGET documents are over a year old,” Nadia Kayyali, a member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation's (EFF) activism team, told in a Tuesday email correspondence. “Since they specifically note that the Bahamas site is 'being used as a test bed for systems deployments, capabilities, and improvements,' it seems the logical conclusion is that SOMALGET technology is, or will be used, elsewhere.”

The SOMALGET surveillance efforts in the Bahamas appear to mostly be helping the NSA's drugs and crime unit locate “international narcotics traffickers and special-interest alien smugglers,” according to NSA documents sourced in the report.  

This particular point bothered Kayyali, who pointed out that the NSA typically touts how its advanced surveillance efforts are used to counter terrorism and protect national security.

“Incredibly pervasive technology is being focused on a country that we have traditionally had a good relationship with, and is being used as a weapon in the war on drugs,” Kayyali said. “When NSA defenders talk about intelligence gathering, they talk about keeping the country safe, but this is a clear example of why that justification should ring false.”

She added, “These revelations are likely to further damage the United States's reputation and relationship, not only with the named countries, but with other countries as well. The global community is increasingly concerned about U.S. surveillance, and until the President and Congress address NSA overreach, we will not repair those relationships.”

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