By Aaron Kesel
The international whistleblowing organization, WikiLeaks, has published a Christmas-themed searchable database of more than 16,000 acquisition requests posted by United States embassies around the world for various job listings, revealing covert activities like spying.
December 21, 2018
All U.S. embassies post requests for quotations and job listings on their websites when they need to purchase goods or services. In some cases, these requests may hint at covert activities performed by US agencies in the country. For example, in an August 2018 procurement request for “Tactical Spy Equipment“, the US embassy in El Salvador asked vendors to provide 94 spy cameras, most disguised as everyday objects such as ties, caps, shirt buttons, watches, USB drives, lighters, and pens. Similar spy cameras were also requested by the US embassy in Colombia.
The majority of the procurement requests focus on mundane activities required for the day-to-day operation of embassies and consulates, such as construction projects, laundry service, and gutter cleaning. In one case, the US consulate in Guayaquil, Ecuador lost track of the number of fish in its fishpond and needed someone to count the fish and clean the pond. Interspersed among these banal requests are documents that provide insight into the priorities and agenda of the US Government abroad. For example, to promote trade interests in China, the US consulate in Shanghai requested the production of “three marketing and promotional videos that highlight U.S. beef quality”.
Even the banal requests may be worth scrutiny because numerous secret programmes are operated out of US embassies. WikiLeaks’ Vault 7 publications showed that the CIA’s Center for Cyber Intelligence runs a covert hacking base out of the US consulate in Frankfurt and the documents disclosed by Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA and CIA jointly operate a covert signals intelligence programme called the Special Collection Service, which uses US embassies around the world as bases for interception of communications and clandestine operations. These procurement documents do not appear to include details related directly to these programmes, but they do include information about the actual activities of the divisions used as cover for CIA programmes, note which jobs require security clearance, and provide clues about the existence of infrastructure that may be potentially useful to US intelligence services operating abroad, such as the data center at the Frankfurt consulate.
While these procurement requests are public information, they are only temporarily linked to from US embassy websites while the request is open. But even after the links to the requests are removed, the files remain online. This is because all US embassies use WordPress and the procurement documents are stored in their WordPress uploads folder. So although older procurement documents may not be obviously available, the WordPress uploads can be searched via both the search function on the embassy’s website and third-party search engines. The US Embassy Shopping List preserves these requests and makes them more accessible by collecting the documents uploaded to US embassy websites, filtering for the procurement-related files, and presenting them in a searchable database.
As the press release notes, while most of the requests are “mundane” demands sent to U.S. embassies, others are an eye opening look into the world of surveillance. This follows up after WikiLeaks’ previous release on Vault 7 where the publication showed that the CIA ran a covert hacking center out of the U.S. consulate in Frankfurt, Germany.
The NSA and CIA jointly operate a covert signals intelligence program called the Special Collection Service, which utilizes U.S. embassies around the world as bases for interception of communications and clandestine operations abroad, according to documents leaked by Edward Snowden. Officially, the SCS program was established in the late 1970s during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Around that time, SCS operatives reportedly hid eavesdropping devices in pigeons that were perched on the windows of the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. headquartered in Beltsville, Maryland.
The SCS has been described as the United States’ “Mission Impossible force.” SCS is part of a larger global surveillance program known as STATEROOM.
As WikiLeaks notes, “there are frequently data centers or server rooms on US diplomatic premises around the world.”
The normal technical teams operating out of embassies and consulates are sometimes used as cover for intelligence operations. For example, the Regional Information Management Center (RIMC) is used as cover for the CIA's secret hacking base at the Frankfurt consulate. pic.twitter.com/Pf6J09icjI— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) December 24, 2018
According to the NSA documents, the “Special Collection Service” (SCS) is operational in Berlin, among other locations. The capabilities of the SCS include intercepting cellular signals, wireless networks and satellite communication. This equipment is usually installed on the upper floors of the embassies or on rooftops nearby where the technology is covered with screens or blocked by structures so it’s not visible by the general public or other countries.
This process of wiretapping from an embassy is entirely illegal in nearly every country.
SCS teams predominantly work undercover in protected areas of the American Embassy and Consulate, where they are officially sanctioned as diplomats and as a result enjoy special privileges given to representatives. Under diplomatic protection, they are able to then listen to communications unhindered. They just can’t get caught, as is evidenced with WikiLeaks’ Vault 7 release.
The secret list at the time by Snowden revealed that SCS agents are active worldwide in approximately 80 locations, 19 of which are in Europe — such as Paris, Madrid, Rome, Prague, and even Geneva. The SCS maintains two bases in Germany, one in Berlin and another in Frankfurt. The Frankfurt base was exposed by WikiLeaks Vault 7 this year.
When it wasreported and revealed to the world, the U.S. faced a diplomatic scandal that it had tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone. Even The New York Times ran an article discussing that the U.S. was targeting enemies and allies alike with this surveillance technology.
Now, WikiLeaks has given us a further glimpse into the contractor deals going through these embassies involved with the SCS. So far, WikiLeaks has highlighted that forensics devices were used to extract data from cell phones and bypass passwords by these embassies, noting in a tweet that the U.S. consulate in Frankfurt helped acquire forensics tools for the embassies in Armenia and Montenegro. The organization also noted that the files showed that the U.S. embassy in Panama sought licenses for Cellebrite’s Universal Forensic Extraction Device (UFED) in order to extract data from the phones of people detained or arrested in the country.
And last year the US embassy in Panama sought licenses for Cellebrite's— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) December 22, 2018
Universal Forensic Extraction Device (UFED) in order to extract data from the phones of people detained or arrested in Panama.https://t.co/S0LiYpJfoq
More details in the Spy Files: https://t.co/Yliu8KzTUx pic.twitter.com/HvxZlHQtKO
WikiLeaks also brought attention to a propaganda-esque video for U.S. beef quality after China lifted the ban on American beef products.
In August 2017 the US consulate in Shanghai commissioned "three marketing and promotional videos that highlight U.S. beef quality" as part of its beef propaganda campaign when China lifted the ban on American beef products.https://t.co/c9CRO1VIaOpic.twitter.com/NJD7VM0I39— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) December 22, 2018
WikiLeaks has previously highlighted propaganda used by the U.K. Parliament repeating the phrase “strong and stable” over and over again for a hypnotic effect. The group also posted another recruitment video for MISOC, a U.S. military psyops intelligence operation that this writer previously highlighted in an article speculating about the organization’s Vault 7 Media Ops release and what it may contain. Thus far this has failed to come to fruition and may be the international whistleblower coalition’s next forthcoming release.
PRE-RELEASE: CIA Vault 7 Part B Media Ops [4GB zip] https://t.co/k9oqqXlrrB— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) April 29, 2017
In the UK, politicians test phrases then repeat them endlessly for hypnotic effect. Example: "strong and stable" pic.twitter.com/w099hw8glS— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks)April 29, 2017
April 29, 2017
WikiLeaks also previously pointed out that “Western media produce endless fake news stories about China by exploiting ignorance about the nature of its tabloids,” with a link to foreignpolicy.com that states “Global Times doesn’t speak for China.”
Western media produce endless fake news stories about China by exploiting ignorance about the nature of its tabloids https://t.co/5NTSVT3eAj— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) April 29, 2017
China has responded to the latest searchable database release by demanding the U.S. explain to the international community why its overseas embassies had purchased spying equipment.
China on Monday urged the United States to offer clear explanations to the international community about why its overseas embassies had purchased spying equipment, as revealed by WikiLeaks. https://t.co/KHlghNuOR9— China Plus News (@ChinaPlusNews) December 25, 2018
“Just a few days ago, the United States has mustered several of its allies to accuse China of undermining cybersecurity of the U.S. side over a long time,” Hua said. “The batch of documents made public by WikiLeaks serves as proof that the U.S. side may have self-directed a drama of blame-shifting again,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said referencing the Trump administration’s decision to charge Chinese citizens with cyber crimes according to a report by China Plus.
“The United States has carried out extensive wiretapping and surveillance activities worldwide, including on its allies, as revealed by the ‘Prism gate’ incident back in 2013,” Hua said. “The United States owes the rest of the world an explanation about what happened five years ago.”
“As for what has been recently revealed by WikiLeaks, we urge the United States to offer clear explanations to the international community.”
As mentioned, WikiLeaks’ release of the database comes just after the U.S. charged two Chinese citizens — Zhu Hua and Zhang Shilong — with damage to at least 45 U.S. tech companies and government agencies.
Prosecutors also directly accused the two of operating in agreement with the Chinese government.
The WikiLeaks U.S. Embassy shopping list, in other words, exposes the blunt end of hypocrisy. While the U.S. will charge two Chinese citizens with cyber crimes, the SCS is involved in the same types of crimes that prosecutors are prosecuting. For the fully searchable database, which is only just scratching the surface in this article, you can check out the WikiLeaks website here.
WikiLeaks founder and former editor in chief Julian Assange is still suffering in the embassy, last seen by doctors before Christmas. Unity4J is holding historic vigils, 8 p.m. – 11 p.m. EST every Friday. Stand in solidarity with Julian Assange and help make and shape history.
It’s important to note as all this unfolds that WikiLeaks recently announced that one of Assange’s longtime associates, Kristin Hrafnsson, took over for him as WikiLeaks’ editor in chief.
and @Unity4J and Assange’s lawyer Twitter accounts most notably — @AssangeLegal.The website Unity4J will be up to date with information, live streams, and places where protests will be held in support of Julian Assange.