British spies intercepted LinkedIn profile pages and injected malware into them to ultimately infiltrate the networks of mobile operators and other telcos in Belgium.
That's according to the latest round of documents leaked by master squealer Edward Snowden.
German weekly Der Spiegel reported that when some engineers working at Belgacom - which is partly state-owned - accessed LinkedIn, the UK's eavesdropping nerve-centre GCHQ detected the web requests and served up malware-infected pages to its victims before the social-networking website could respond.
It's claimed GCHQ was able to do this by attaching equipment to key components of the world's internet backbone, granting the intelligence agency the ability to intercept and meddle with the net's traffic.
Apparently, the compromised profiles looked no different to the legit web pages. It's claimed Blighty spies had slipped a small software nasty into the spoofed pages using tech dubbed "Quantum Insert". When the targets pulled up what they thought was their LinkedIn pages, the hidden malicious code attempted to exploit vulnerabilities in their systems, turning the machines into surveillance tools for GCHQ.
Blabbermouth Snowden, who had worked as an IT contractor for the US National Security Agency before blowing the lid on the work of spies on both sides of the Atlantic, is holed up in Russia where he holds temporary asylum status.
A document marked as "top secret" by GCHQ that was leaked by Snowden suggests that Britain's spies had done their homework about the engineers they wanted to target in Belgium. They apparently pinpointed IT experts working in network maintenance and security.
Spooks then narrowed the field to engineers who had accounts on LinkedIn and/or used the Slashdot.org. Once they had identified their targets, they slipped them bogus profiles that then allowed the spies to sneak into Belgacom's internal network. It has been reported that they also penetrated the telco's subsidiary biz BICS, which runs a GRX router system.
Der Spiegel reported in September that GCHQ had infiltrated Belgacom as part of "Operation Socialist", whose mission was to gain access to the company's Core GRX routers in order to run man-in-the middle attacks against targets roaming with smartphones.
Billing outfits - Switzerland-based Comfone and Mach - were also on the list of companies for GCHQ to spy on using the Quantum Insert method, the German newspaper said.
LinkedIn, according to one of the documents leaked by Snowden, was a particularly good candidate for Quantum Insert, with the claim in 2012 that spooks using the network had a "success rate per shot [that was] looking to be greater than 50 per cent."
But the company insisted that it had not aided British operatives to spy on Belgium's biggest telecoms network.
"LinkedIn would not authorise such activity for any purpose," it said. The firm added that it had not been told about the "alleged activity." ®