NSA accused as Belgian telecom reports snooping

BRUSSELS - Belgium denounced Monday the "substantial and invasive" hacking of its biggest telecommunications company, saying a foreign state may have been responsible, as media pointed the finger at the scandal-hit NSA.

Two months after the blockbuster revelations of the US National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, state-owned Belgacom said its computers had been hacked and a formal complaint filed to Belgian prosecutors.

Prosecutors said the hacking could have only been done by an entity "with significant financial and logistical means" and that suspicions were circling on an act of "international state espionage".

On the basis of the information so far, the aim was probably "to gather strategic information" rather than to "sabotage or to cause economic damage," the prosecutors said.

Belgian minister responsible for public companies Jean-Pascale Labille said investigators will have to find the organisations behind the "substantial and invasive" hacking.

The country will raise cyber-security issues with its European partners, he said, adding that he understood France had suffered similar incidents.

The servers belonged to employees of Belgacom and did not involve customers' data or communications, the company said.

But Belgian media on Monday directed their suspicions at the NSA, the super-secret security agency exposed by Snowden as a snooper of multi-national institutions, embassies, and even the United States' closest allies.

This included covert and systematic surveillance of EU offices, diplomatic missions in Washington and at the United Nations in New York.

Belgian newspaper De Standaard reported Monday that the Belgacom intrusion was organised by the NSA and began in 2011 at the latest, but without revealing its sources for the charge.

Belgium said it would take "appropriate action" if the involvement of a foreign government was confirmed.

According to the newspaper, the real target of the snooping was BICS, a unit of Belgacom also owned by Swisscom and MTN, the South African operator.

BICS operates huge volumes of phone and data traffic in Africa and the Middle East. The United States was especially interested in communications involving Yemen, Syria and other nations deemed suspicious by Washington security agencies, the newspaper said.

Documents divulged by Snowden have shown the NSA conducts a massive electronic dragnet, including trawling through phone records and online traffic, that has sometimes flouted privacy laws.

Reports allege the NSA also spied on the internal communications of France's foreign ministry and diplomats and those of Qatar-based television station Al-Jazeera

And earlier this month, Brazilian broadcaster TV Globo reported that the NSA eavesdropped on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, some of her aides and the state oil giant Petrobras.

Last week the Brussels-based European Commission called for "clear satisfactory answers" about the allegations.

The Snowden affair has not only complicated diplomacy but embarrassed the Internet and telecom sector, with some companies accused of betraying their customers by cooperating with government spying.

In response, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft are among Internet firms pushing for permission to disclose more details to users about demands for data made in the name of fighting terrorism or other threats.