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NSA Taps UN's Internal Video Teleconferencing System

August 30, 2013

The National Security Agency (NSA) has been in the news recently for its extensive tapping into all kinds of communications within the U.S. These activities were brought to light by Edward Snowden, a computer science engineer working for the NSA. He leaked evidence that showed how the NSA used its authority and resources to listen to American citizens' phone calls and e-mails. This has brought a lot of public outrage, but it does not seem to have any effect on the NSA or the American government.

Other than public eavesdropping, the NSA has also been tapping into the communications of different embassies and the UN. This was revealed by the German newspaper Der Speigal last weekend. This newspaper has documents that show how the NSA bugged the office of EU embassies and the UN to gather sensitive information.

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The most striking aspect in this revelation is how the NSA cracked the decryption code of the UN's internal video teleconferencing (VTC) system. This is striking because the VTC was presumed to be unbreakable. Further, it contains highly sensitive information that transpired about different countries, so this tapping gave the NSA access to the highest classified information. This is unethical and raises questions about a legal recourse.

However, this revelation by Speigler is unlikely to cause any legal problems for the NSA. This is because the agency will argue that the UN headquarters are “technically” not within the U.S. It will use the loophole in the agreement between the U.S. and the UN that states that the area of New York occupied by the UN offices falls under the control of the UN only. The NSA will argue that it is common for one country to spy on other countries and the same argument applies in this scenario as well.

Despite this argument, tapping into the UN's VTC brings up many interesting questions. What company provided this technology to the UN? Did it have a tie-up with the NSA in any way? Is there any trust left on American soil for foreign diplomats?

Countries that have a diplomatic presence are not waiting for answers to these questions. They have started beefing up their communication channels to protect their information from the NSA.

Edited by Alisen Downey