CIA used encryption company as front to spy on foreign powers

(Image credit: Shutterstock / g0df4ther)

The Swiss government has initiated an enquiry into Zug-based Crypto AG after revelations the encryption company was a front for US and German intelligence operations for decades.

The company’s encryption equipment allowed the CIA and the German BND to access highly confidential communications, and to rake in a profit for the privilege.

Crypto AG was the world’s leading supplier of encryption systems to other countries. The company sold flawed machines to more than 100 nations, including Iran, India, Pakistan, Egypt and Italy. 

Using Crypto AG products, the CIA spied on Tehran during the 1979 hostage crisis, surveilled Libyan officials after a Berlin bombing in 1986 and relayed Argentinian military plans to the UK at the height of the Falklands war. 

International espionage

Crypto AG was co-owned and controlled by the CIA and West German Intelligence (later the BND) from as early as 1945. The BND sold its stake in the company to the CIA in the 1990s, fearing exposure and backlash, but the US continued to use the equipment for intelligence purposes until 2018.

“It was the intelligence coup of the decade,” said a CIA report. “Foreign governments were paying good money to the US and West Germany for the privilege of having their most secret communications read by at least two foreign countries.”

The success of the operation, originally codenamed Thesaurus and renamed Rubicon in the 1980s, highlights the intelligence benefits of using vulnerable communications hardware as a means of surveillance.

Those who believe Huawei 5G technology poses a significant security threat might point to Crypto AG as an example of how foreign powers can gather confidential information without detection.

Links between the CIA and Crypto AG were first reported in 1995, but the stories were dismissed as unfounded and foreign powers continued to use the equipment at will.

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Via Washington Post

Joel Khalili
News and Features Editor

Joel Khalili is the News and Features Editor at TechRadar Pro, covering cybersecurity, data privacy, cloud, AI, blockchain, internet infrastructure, 5G, data storage and computing. He's responsible for curating our news content, as well as commissioning and producing features on the technologies that are transforming the way the world does business.