Dec 4, 2014 · 1 minute

The National Security Agency snooped on the communications of telecom employees to help it hack into cellphone networks around the world, according to the Intercept, which learned of the efforts via documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The program appears to have been a success: the Intercept reports that the NSA was able to compromise some 70 percent of the world's cellphone networks, thanks at least partly to the information gleaned from documents taken from the telecom employees.

Networks in the United States and its allies weren't spared from the NSA's efforts, though it seems that networks in the US, Australia, and a handful of other countries weren't targeted as frequently as those in Russia, China, the Middle East, and Africa.

The program calls into question the NSA's claims that it doesn't amass knowledge about security vulnerabilities -- a move which has been criticized because it means those problems can be exploited by other groups -- to assist its surveillance efforts.

It also demonstrates the agency's conflicting aims: to exploit vulnerabilities that allow it to surveil potential threats to the US (which, thanks to the broad interpretation of words like "imminent," includes essentially everyone) while protecting against similar efforts that could help other countries spy on American citizens or the US military.

That second purpose is often neglected in favor of the first. The NSA and its allies aren't interested in improving digital security -- that runs counter to their intent to snoop on anyone who manages to make their way onto a watch-list.

It's not clear if the operation, which is referred to as AURORAGOLD in the documents published by the Intercept, remains active. But it is clear that the government's claims in general, and the NSA's claims in particular, that there are no efforts to undermine the security of commonly-used systems are demonstrably and unequivocally false.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]