Apparition, Ghosthunter, Fallowhaunt – what our intelligence agencies do in the shadows

Apr 18, 2024
Five Eyes concept. United Kingdom – United States of America Agreement. Elements of this image furnished by NASA. 3D rendering.

A recent intelligence controversy in New Zealand is a telling lesson about how little influence junior parties like New Zealand and Australia have over allied intelligence operations.

The issue was raised in an excellent report by New Zealand’s Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) late last month concerning foreign intelligence equipment installed from 2012-2020 inside a New Zealand intelligence facility.

The IGIS report said the decision making leading up to the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) hosting the foreign system was “improper” and that the GCSB “could not be sure the tasking of the capability was always in accordance with… New Zealand law.” The inspector general said “I have found some of the GCSB’s explanations about how the capability operated and was tasked” were contradicted by information in GCSB records at that time.

The news was intriguing. But having reached these conclusions, all the details about the foreign equipment were withheld because the operation was highly classified. The name and purpose of the foreign spying equipment, the identity of the “foreign partner agency” and the location of the “GCSB facility” where foreign equipment was hosted all remained secret.

Luckily, the foreign equipment had been planned and installed shortly before the 2013 leak of US and allied intelligence documents by US whistle blower Edward Snowden. By carefully comparing the dates and details in the IGIS report with those in the Snowden documents, the foreign system can be identified to a high degree of certainty.

The mystery spy equipment discussed in the IGIS report had the ghostly codename “APPARITION” and was owned by and controlled by the US National Security Agency – the world’s largest intelligence gathering agency.

An NSA internal report, describing the launch of the system in 2008, said that “APPARITION builds on the success of the GHOSTHUNTER prototype… a tool that enabled a significant number of capture-kill operations against terrorists.”

Capture-kill operations involve lethal attacks on targeted people using drones, bombs and special forces raids. Human rights organisations have documented numerous deaths of civilians during US capture-kill operations – many of them “algorithmically targeted” using electronic surveillance systems such as APPARITION. They are also called “extra-judicial killings”.

The IGIS report said the foreign equipment “clearly had the potential to be used, in conjunction with other intelligence sources, to support military action against targets.” GCSB staff had concerns about the resulting “legal and moral issues.”

Nonetheless, the IGIS report says that not even the minister in charge was ever told about the GCSB hosting this equipment. Nor was the IGIS office told, despite its central role in overseeing the agencies.

The 2008 NSA report explained how the targeting is done. “APPARITION is a precision geolocation capability for targeting foreign very small aperture satellite terminals (VSAT),” it said. VSAT refers to small satellite communication systems used to access the Internet in remote places away from major Internet connections. Precision geolocation means working out the exact location of a target person. VSAT is “an important target,” it said, “because VSATs are often used by Internet cafes and foreign governments in the Middle East.”

The report said the APPARITION system at Misawa, a major NSA base in northern Japan, was “currently targeting VSAT terminals believed to be servicing Internet cafés used by high-value counterterrorism (CT) targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Indonesia, as well as non-CT targets in China.”

The NSA report is dated December 2008, shortly after the first operational version of APPARITION was installed at Misawa. It said “Plans are well advanced to install APPARITIONs… [at] FORNSAT [foreign satellite interception] sites worldwide, including Second Party locations, in the next two years.”

“Second Parties” refer to the Five Eyes intelligence allies: the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (the First Party is the United States). The GCSB was approached the following year as a potential site for APPARITION.

The APPARITION equipment was installed in 2012 at the GCSB’s Waihopai satellite interception base, located in a grape-growing valley in the northern South Island.

The system works by combining two different types in intelligence: ground stations like Waihopai intercepting the satellites that relay the VSAT satellite communications for remote users; and “Overhead” spy satellites that locate the targets from far above the earth. When combined, the report said, the intelligence systems could estimate the precise geolocations of VSAT Internet cafes and other target locations with an “average error of probability of only 0.07 nautical miles” (130 metres) – not actually very precise in a built-up area.

Another NSA report, called “APPARITION / GHOSTHUNTER TASKING INFO”, describes the purpose of APPARITION as “Directed Target Development”. It “provides global access for VSAT geolocation requirements initially and incorporates the use of OH [Overhead spy satellites], comsat [surveillance of commercial satellites], SCS [secret eavesdropping units within embassies] and other access hubs.”

It said “Requests are acknowledged by Denver and scheduled via mission planning for execution.”

New Zealand was a link in this chain, but the GCSB appears to have had little knowledge and no interest in who was being targeted and potentially killed by the system.

The IGIS found several comments in GCSB staff emails about “high volumes of data” being sent to the US from APPARITION. Yet he found “no evidence of substantive due diligence being done by GCSB on the reasons for tasking the capability.” The GCSB “apparently neither received nor sought any information about what GCSB-collected data acquired by the system was going to be used for.”

GCSB also used the equipment for its own targeting duties in the Five Eyes alliance. Another 2012 Snowden document suggests that the Waihopai base was intercepting VSAT communications in the Pacific by targeting a satellite called NSS-9, located at 183 degrees east, as part of the Waihopai station’s “South Pacific mission” (surveillance of South Pacific states). The station also had a system called FALLOWHAUNT in 2012 to eavesdrop on VSAT communications.

Decade after decade, intelligence agencies assure the public that their activities are strictly lawful and increasing transparent. They have rigorous processes and all their operations are based on national priorities approved by their government. Decade after decade, cases like APPARITION remind that this is not correct.

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