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GCHQ 'Belgacom hack' investigated

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Belgian telecoms firm Belgacom, which was suspected of being hacked by the UK's GCHQ intelligence agency earlier this year, has discovered further 'irregularities' in its network.

A spokesperson for Belgacom said last week (18 October) that an investigation has unearthed changes in the router software at its international carrier services subsidiary company, BICS, which it says were made “possibly during the recent digital intrusion”.

The discovery will lead to more scrutiny of GCHQ's suspected role in intercepting communications between ‘friendly' countries.

Belgacom initially reported malware in its systems in June but has always said it does not know the source of the attack and GCHQ has declined to comment.

But the claim that GCHQ was responsible for hacking into Belgacom – whose customers include the EU offices in Brussels – surfaced in German publication Der Spiegel, based on documents provided by ex-CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden. They allegedly revealed a GCHQ attack on Belgacom's systems to intercept communications under the codename “Operation Socialist”.

This has prompted an ongoing judicial enquiry in Belgium. The reports have also been taken up by the European Parliament's influential Civil Liberties Committee, which is conducting its own inquiry into the mass surveillance of UK and European citizens' personal data by the US and UK intelligence agencies.

The Committee slated a hearing into the Belgacom case earlier this month. But while Belgacom's executives gave evidence, GCHQ head Sir Iain Lobban failed to appear.

In a statement issued last Friday, Belgacom explained how it unearthed the network intrusion after tightening its controls “since the recent digital intrusion”. The company said: “As part of the aftercare, intensive monitoring is being carried out on all systems to detect any irregularities. These stringent controls have brought to light irregularities on a router at BICS.

“Belgacom and BICS are making every effort to resolve the problems noted and will continue to communicate about this issue as soon as the results of the investigation and the schedule of the remedial actions allow.”

Also last week, the UK's Commons Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), chaired by Sir Malcolm Rifkind, widened the scope of its inquiry into whether Britain's laws on electronic eavesdropping are adequate. The ISC will now hear evidence from members of the public because of widespread worries about unauthorised electronic surveillance.

Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, told SC Magazine: “With multiple legislative proposals in the US tabled and high-level calls for a review of surveillance law on both sides of the Atlantic, clearly it is not credible to say that there is no problem with the legal framework and oversight currently in place. Equally, in the 21st century it is not acceptable for this to be a closed, secretive debate, without the intelligence agencies engaging in public discussion.

A spokesperson for Belgacom said last week (18 October) that an investigation has unearthed changes in the router software at its international carrier services subsidiary company, BICS, which it says were made “possibly during the recent digital intrusion”.

The discovery will lead to more scrutiny of GCHQ's suspected role in intercepting communications between ‘friendly' countries.

Belgacom initially reported malware in its systems in June but has always said it does not know the source of the attack and GCHQ has declined to comment.

But the claim that GCHQ was responsible for hacking into Belgacom – whose customers include the EU offices in Brussels – surfaced in German publication Der Spiegel, based on documents provided by ex-CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden. They allegedly revealed a GCHQ attack on Belgacom's systems to intercept communications under the codename “Operation Socialist”.

This has prompted an ongoing judicial enquiry in Belgium. The reports have also been taken up by the European Parliament's influential Civil Liberties Committee, which is conducting its own inquiry into the mass surveillance of UK and European citizens' personal data by the US and UK intelligence agencies.

The Committee slated a hearing into the Belgacom case earlier this month. But while Belgacom's executives gave evidence, GCHQ head Sir Iain Lobban failed to appear.

“The internet is an essential part of international and national infrastructure. If we are to promote and protect a situation where emerging democracies and major economies do not pursue a closed, national internet then states must pursue this with their actions, not just their rhetoric.”

A GCHQ spokesperson declined to comment on the latest Belgacom revelations.

Earlier this month the BBC also reported that the Belgian port of Antwerp had been subject to cyber-attack when drug traffickers breached IT systems controlling the movement of containers. Police raids in Belgium and Holland resulted in 15 arrests and the seizure of computer hacking equipment, drugs, guns and €1.3 million cash. Belgium-based hackers were effectively hired by the traffickers to access security details and locations of specific containers, with they would then pick up before the legitimate owner arrived.  The hackers broke in and installed key-logging devices after a firewall was installed to prevent earlier attacks.

“The internet is an essential part of international and national infrastructure. If we are to promote and protect a situation where emerging democracies and major economies do not pursue a closed, national internet then states must pursue this with their actions, not just their rhetoric.”

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