Snowden files: Inside Waihopai’s domes

NZ Stuff
8 March 2014
Nicky Hager and Ryan Gallagher

The technology of spying.

The Waihopai intelligence base looks oddly alien and out of place: huge white “golf ball” radomes like a moon station and silent buildings within two fences of razor wire, all dropped in the midst of vineyards and dry hills in New Zealand’s Marlborough landscape.

Documents about the Waihopai station leaked by US National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden show that the facility is as alien as is seems.

Everything inside the top secret station except the staff is foreign.

The electronic eavesdropping systems, the computer programmes that automatically index and search the captured communications, and the databases where details of a whole region’s communications are stored: they are all standardised parts of the global surveillance system run by the NSA.

The Waihopai base functions as a cog in that spying machine, the alliance’s main eye on the South Pacific region.

The Sunday Star-Times analysed the documents in collaboration with US news website The Intercept, which obtained them from Snowden. The leaked files reveal in unprecedented detail the New Zealand-based station’s targets, inner workings and links to the international network of spy facilities run by the Five Eyes.


GCSB update 2010

* GCSB update 2012

* Second Party National Identity Rules


* Spying on the family

Satellites targeted by Waihopai

*Andrea Vance: Silence on surveillance not healthy

Altogether, these bases can snoop on the entire world, friend as well as foe.

The leaked documents do not talk about “Waihopai”. They use the station’s secret Five Eyes code name Ironsand (“IS”). It’s not clear why Waihopai is Ironsand.

An NSA map shows it is one of a global network of oddly-named satellite interception stations. These stations are the eyes of the Five Eyes alliance.

Australia has a base near Geraldton, a small port city on the west coast of Australia. Its codename is Stellar.

The British station in Oman has the codename Snick. Britain’s Kenya base is known as Scapel. Britain also spies on satellites from Carboy, a station in Cornwall, and from a base in Cyprus called Sounder.

The American equivalents of Waihopai are Jackknife in Washington State on the Pacific coast, Timberline in West Virginia and Coraline in Puerto Rico in the Caribbean. The biggest of these is the Moonpenny base in Harrogate, Yorkshire.

The New Zealand station is viewed by the alliance as just another base in its network. It is marked on the map as a “Second Party” site. In the Five Eyes alliance, the US is first party and Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are second parties.

There are also colourful code names – Juggernaut, Legalreptile, and Venusaffect, for example – for the intelligence programmes used inside the Waihopai base.

What do these systems do?

Latentheat breaks the intercepted satellite signals down into individual communications. Legalreptile collects text messages and call metadata, Semitone targets fax and voice messages, and Surfboard targets landline phones.

Fallowhaunt targets certain satellite communications, Juggernaut processes intercepted calls from mobile phone networks (including voice, fax, data and text messages), and Lopers is used against landline phone calls (public switched telephone networks, PSTN). Xkeyscore is a once top-secret interception programme which has become world-famous since Snowden began his revelations: now it’s like a Google for spooks. It processes intercepted internet communications to provide databases of IP addresses, browser history, content and metadata of emails, social media messages and so on.

Each intelligence system produces metadata of all the intercepted communications and makes them available to US and allied intelligence analysts via NSA databases.

Most other equipment and programmes are American. All or nearly all the major surveillance systems at the Waihopai base are US-supplied and could be found identically at the other stations. All the phone calls and Internet communications they intercept and sort at the base then go into NSA databases.

The only difference between this and an NSA base on New Zealand soil is that it is New Zealanders who arrive each day to maintain the NSA surveillance systems.

Sniff it all, collect it all, know it all, process it all and exploit it all – the jocular spyspeak slogans are a perfect summary of a truly global surveillance system.

The Five Eyes alliance is a global digital vacuum cleaner which can scoop up prodigious amounts of information – far more than the human mind can really comprehend.

There was a stiff backlash in Europe after Snowden’s revelations showed the scale of surveillance against Western European countries. The German news magazine Der Spiegel revealed that there had been 417 million metadata records (showing who communicated with whom, at what time) collected in Five Eyes surveillance against Germany in 30 days from December 2012 to January 2013.

It listed the top intelligence systems that accounted for about 90 per cent of this total: Xkeyscore collected 182 million records, Lopers 131.5 million records and Juggernaut 93.5m records.

Each of these systems is also used at Waihopai. The Waihopai station is doing exactly the same to Pacific countries as the US and British intelligence agencies were doing to Western European countries.


NZ’s spying on the Pacific: Snowden

* What’s in the files

* PM dismisses spy claims

A 2012 advertisement for a US intelligence analyst job seeks someone with experience with “systems such as Darkquest, Wealthycluster and Xkeyscore”. The job, located in Annapolis Junction, Maryland, site of the NSA headquarters, also required knowledge of the Commonground and Venusaffect systems.

These are all systems at Waihopai.

The GCSB documents mention a system called Shadowcat, which was “awaited” at the Waihopai base in 2012. It is a programme developed by the British Five Eyes agency.

The equipment is so standardised, a GCSB staffer told us, that when an overseas NSA station closed, much of its equipment was offered to all the sister stations, including Waihopai.

Five Eyes staff from the different agencies are constantly shuttling around the network. In April 2010, two other NSA staff visited Waihopai on a “technical exchange” from Menwith Hill Station, the world’s largest satellite interception base, run by the NSA in the north England countryside near Harrogate.

They briefed staff on the Menwith Hill Station’s provocatively named “Collect It All” initiative. This refers to an important expansion of surveillance across the whole global network.

A document called the “NSA’s Collection Posture”, leaked in a Powerpoint slide by Snowden, outlines the newly expanded system. The first step was “Sniff it All” and refers to “Torus”, a complex new antenna system introduced at Waihopai that can intercept several satellites as once to “increase physical access”.

The second step was “Know it All” and refers to another programme called Darkquest.

The third step was “Collect it All” aimed at “increasing [the] volume of signals”, the goal discussed by the visiting Menwith Hill Station staff.

Fourth was “Process it All”, naming Xkeyscore, the NSA system at the heart of the Waihopai intelligence collection.

Read The Intercept report: click here

The Powerpoint slide ends with “Exploit it all” and “Partner it all”.

– Sunday Star Times


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