Spy agencies including the NSA and GCHQ are tracking your mobile use in-flight

(Image Credit: iStockPhoto/Sitikka)

If you assumed your privacy was at least safe while cruising at 30,000 feet, I'm afraid you're mistaken. A new report based on content from the Snowden files has revealed the NSA and GCHQ have a dedicated program codenamed "Thieving Magpie" for in-flight surveillance. 

With airlines relaxing their rules on mobile use on-board, spy agencies have decided they want to intrude on citizens' privacy in the air the same as on terra firma. Since all users on a flight will communicate through on-board connectivity services, it seems to be relatively trivial for the agencies to intercept. 

According to Le Monde and The Intercept's report: 

“To spy on a telephone, all that was required was that the aircraft be cruising at an altitude above 10,000 feet. Secret aerial stations on the ground could intercept the signal as it transited through a satellite. The simple fact that the telephone was switched on was enough to give away its position; the interception could then be cross-referenced with the list of known passengers on the flight, the flight number, and the airline code to determine the name of the smartphone user.” 

A primary target for the surveillance agencies was Air France, but other airlines were also subject to having travelers' communications intercepted. Lufthansa, British Airways, Emirates, and over 20 other airlines were spied upon due to relaxing mobile use restrictions. 

In the documents for Thieving Magpie, GCHQ highlights the fact "If they [travelers] use data, we can also recover email addresses, Facebook IDs, Skype addresses.etc" 

Furthermore, if specific targets are under surveillance, the agencies can track persons of interest in real-time in order to be intercepted on arrival. “We can confirm that targets selectors are on board specific flights in near real time, enabling surveillance or arrest teams to be put in place in advance.” 

The only issue encountered with in-air surveillance is that experienced of users of in-flight communication services, they're not always the most reliable. When communications are disrupted, so is the ability for spy agencies to maintain real-time surveillance, and there's nothing big brother hates more than not being able to keep track of individuals 24/7. 

What are your thoughts on in-flight surveillance? Let us know in the comments. 

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