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.
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.”
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.