A covert arm of the US National Security Agency (NSA) called the Special Collection Service (SCS) has been installing secret signals intelligence equipment within diplomatic buildings to spy while abroad.
As revealed in documents leaked by US whistleblower Edward Snowden to Der Spiegel, the SCS monitors wireless communications and assists in locating people of interest. Its activities have been given the codename "Stateroom". Its capabilities include the ability to monitor microwave, Wi-Fi, WiMAX, GSM, CDMA, and satellite signals.
The group is believed to be active in over 80 locations in the world, positioning itself at diplomatic facilities and working with the US Central Intelligence Agency. These include the embassies or consulates belonging to the US, the UK, Canada and Australia.
"These sites are small in size and in number of personnel staffing them. They are covert, and their true mission is not known by the majority of the diplomatic staff at the facility where they are assigned," a glossary noted in the leaked documents. A total of 96 sites are known to exist as of August 2010, and vary in size and automation. Several of them can be run unmanned, but the vast majority are actively staffed.
In some cases, collection equipment has been concealed to hide the fact that a facility is being used to spy on others.
"For example, antennas are sometimes hidden in false architectural features or roof maintenance sheds."
Independent Senator Nick Xenophon has now called for a review of Australia's data surveillance practices in light of these allegations.
"There's a difference between genuine national security — keeping a country safe — and using it for other purposes, and that's why we need to have a debate in this country," Xenophon told Sky News on Thursday.
He said questions about domestic surveillance asked of former Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr had gone unanswered, and he remains concerned about the impact of such data collection, which he fears could impinge on rights including free speech.
The Department of Foreign Affairs has declined to comment on the latest revelations.
Xenophon's review, however, is several years behind the existing debate as to what SCS actually does.
In 1994, former deputy director of the Canadian Communications Security Establishment Mike Frost wrote in his book Spyworld of his account of the SCS. The group is believed to have been around since the 1970s, after competing espionage operations between the CIA and NSA proved to be counter-productive.
Frost claims the installations were not considered to be the clean environments normally expected, with much of the equipment jerry-rigged. He also expanded on the SCS' activities, saying that some of them were responsible for placing eavesdropping equipment on diplomats, or installing devices in embassies.