The SIGINT alliance founded in 1976 is still going strong

A DANE, Swede, German and Dutchman walk into a bar. It is 1979 and spooks from the four countries are conferring in Munich over dark and malty lagers. For years, they had co-operated in the business of signals intelligence, or SIGINT—intercepting messages and cracking codes—and wanted a name for their budding spy pact. “They looked at their glasses, filled with Doppelbock beer of the local brand Maximator,” writes Bart Jacobs, a Dutch computer-science professor, “and reached a decision”.

In a paper published last month, Mr Jacobs publicly revealed the existence of the Maximator alliance for the first time, to the considerable irritation of those who had kept it under wraps for decades. The group was formed in 1976, when Denmark joined forces with Germany and Sweden to intercept and decipher messages sent by satellites, a burgeoning method of communication. The Netherlands joined two years later, bringing its intercept stations in the Carribean to the table, and France in 1985. The group is alive and well today.

Maximator’s history is a fine illustration of the layers of chicanery involved in good cryptology. As well as plucking signals out of the ether, the group would swap details of weaknesses in cipher machines which encrypted diplomatic and military messages. Luckily for them, says Mr Jacobs, the companies that made those machines “were mostly controlled by Western intelligence organisations.” Crypto AG, a Swiss firm that dominated the global market, turns out to have been jointly owned by the CIA and its German counterpart, the BND. They would sell rigged machines to friends and enemies alike, including several NATO countries.

Without letting on how it knew, Germany slipped information about those machines’ weaknesses to its Maximator partners, giving them a head-start on reading others’ mail. German spies would eventually get cold feet about the CIA’s enthusiasm for snooping on allies. When they refused an American request to sell rigged machines to Turkey, America simply got the Dutch to flog their own compromised devices, made by the Dutch company Philips, instead. Alas, the Dutch spy agency that did this neglected to tell the rival Dutch one involved in Maximator, leaving the Europeans baffled as to “the sudden appearance of unknown ciphertext emerging out of Turkey”, says Mr Jacobs.

The revelation of Maximator is a reminder that the Five Eyes—a globe-girdling intelligence pact between America, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand—is not the only game in town. Other eavesdropping alliances have often coalesced around common goals, like the war in Afghanistan. For instance, the Fourteen Eyes, officially known as SIGINT Seniors Europe, brings together the countries in Five Eyes and Maximator, along with Spain, Norway, Belgium and Italy. “These groupings are not exclusive”, says a British insider, but “more of a patchwork focused on particular shared and overlapping interests”. None is as wide-ranging and intimate as the Five Eyes, whose members share data in real time and even swap personnel.

Nevertheless, Maximator is staunchly European, something that carries certain advantages as transatlantic divisions grow wider. “German and French engineers work very well together,” notes Bernard Barbier, a former head of SIGINT for French intelligence, who once proposed a fused Franco-German spy agency. “In contrast,” he laments, “a British engineer with a French engineer is complicated.” Maximator also appears to have been especially secretive, unknown even to many people within the spy agencies involved. “I’ve seen some spectacular stuff that I think the Five Eyes would very much like to have,” says a former Dutch intelligence official. “And it couldn’t be shared.”

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