Snowden documents show British digital spies use viruses and 'honey traps'

JTRIG active intelligence unit boasts of bugging and burgling


At the start of this week, documents released by whistleblower Edward Snowden detailed DDOS attacks on chatrooms by a British online intelligence unit dubbed the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG). Now he has released a new trove showing that JTRIG is about much more than purely online annoyances.

According to the documents, released to NBC News, JTRIG's role is to "deny, disrupt, degrade and deceive" by any means possible. These techniques include destroying an individual's computer with a custom virus dubbed "Ambassador's Reception", setting up social media honey traps to harvest embarrassing information, actively attacking companies online and off, and planting data on people's systems.

A PowerPoint presentation from 2010 states that JTRIG activities account for five per cent of GCHQ's operations budget and uses a variety of techniques. These include "call bombing" to drown out a target's ability to receive messages, attacking targets in hotels, Psyops (psychological operations) against individuals, and going all the way up to disrupting a country's critical infrastructure.

One system, called "Royal Concierge", involves tapping into hotel bookings data to see where a target is staying and determine if the hotel in question is "SIGINT [signals intelligence] friendly." If not, GCHQ has a Close Access Technical Operations team who can take further action to enable extra monitoring tools.

According to reports in Der Spiegel last year, British intelligence has tapped the reservations systems of over 350 top hotels around the world for the past three years to set up Royal Concierge. It was used to spy on trade delegations, foreign diplomats, and other targets with a taste for the high life.

Foreign news agencies are also listed as a target in this latest batch of documents. SIGNIT techniques can be used for employee profiling and harvesting credentials, which can then be used to influence the agency's output by persuasion – a "social, not technical solution," the slide states.

'It's a trap, honey'

The second leak is an annotated 2012 presentation given by GCHQ at the NSA's SIGINT 2012 conference, and shows JTRIG has become more advanced and underhand in their techniques. It has also set up an "Online Covert Action Accreditation" program that is being used to train analysts in "using online techniques to make something happen in the real or cyber world."

The presentation describes successes in actions against the Taliban in Afghanistan, where targets had their phones called automatically or were bombarded with text messages every 10 seconds. JTING could also block up older technologies, such as fax machines, it said and delete someone's entire online persona.

Targets can also be discredited with a "honey trap", whereby a fake social media profile is created, maybe backed up by a personal blog to provide credibility. This could be used to entice someone into making embarrassing confessions, which the presentation notes described as "a great option" and "very successful when it works."

JTRIG can also be used against companies, the presentation states, to discredit businesses. This can involve leaking selected piece of damaging SIGINT to the press and bloggers, posting negative information about a firm on online firms or actively trying to ruin business relationships.

False-flag operations are also handled by the unit. If GCHQ wants to deceive another country's intelligence services, it will plant seemingly secret information on a system it knows to be compromised and let it be scooped up.

JTRIG also used the custom "Ambassador's Reception" virus to make a target's computer unusable. The virus, which the presentation says has been used many times, can encrypt files, delete emails, or even cause the screen image to shake so much as to be unusable.

Attacks could be varied to suit the purpose. The document describes "blitz" attacks aimed at maximum disruption over a short period of time, as well as longer-term operations that influence the target more subtly and which are harder to recognize and militate against.

"All of GCHQ's work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework," said the agency in a statement, "which ensure[s] that our activities are authorized, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the Secretary of State, the Interception and Intelligence Services Commissioners and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. All of our operational processes rigorously support this position." ®


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