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GCHQ UK Caught Snooping on Transatlantic Fibre Optic Connections

Saturday, June 22nd, 2013 (8:23 am) - Score 2,611

The Government’s Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), which aims to provide intelligence, protect information and “keep our society safe and successful“, has been caught tapping into at least some of the world’s transatlantic fibre optic cable links that keep us all connected via the Internet and via phone calls.

According to new documents leaked by Edward Snowden, a USA man whom formerly worked for the National Security Agency (NSA) before he apparently went rogue and blew the lid on yet more of the country’s secrets, GCHQ has been tapping into the fibre optic cables that come into and go out of the United Kingdom for the past 18 months (plus possibly a few cables in other countries too but it’s not clear).

The information suggests the operation, which is codenamed Tempora, can store huge amounts of data for up to 30 days for special analysis. The data caught by this project, which covers everything from recordings of phone calls to the content of emails, website visits and Facebook updates, is just as likely to relate to innocent people as it is to targeted suspects.

By comparison the now at least partially defunct internet snooping legislation (Communications Data Bill), which was recently blocked by the Deputy PM Nick Clegg (here and here) over personal privacy concerns, would have only created logs of access and not the content of your communications (it was also intended to target local / internal UK comms). But The Guardian’s piece suggests that Tempora already goes well beyond that.

Edward Snowden, NSA Whistleblower, said:

It’s not just a US problem. The UK has a huge dog in this fight. They [GCHQ] are worse than the US.”

However a source with knowledge of the situation is reported to have told the newspaper that the data was collected under a system of safeguards and has already helped to stop a significant number of serious crimes. It would also perhaps be wrong to think that other countries aren’t doing something similar (well we know the USA does and China is always a good bet).

At least some of the collected data is understood to have also been shared with other members of the so-called Five Eyes, a term used to describe an electronic eavesdropping alliance that comprises the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, through a supposedly “light oversight regime“.

The report claims that GCHQ had tapped a total of more than 200 fibre-optic cables (most of those have a capacity of 10Gbps) and could access data from around 46 of those at any one time (around 600 million telephone events each day). It’s claimed that the scale of this effort, which began five years ago with some initial trials, is continuing to increase with more cables being tapped all the time (100Gbps+ cables are the next target).

The once secret activity is alleged to have been conducted by using an obscure clause in the original Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which allows the government’s home or foreign secretary to approve such activity as long as one end of the snooped communication is abroad (i.e. international traffic and connections).

Never the less Tempora remains a legally questionable operation and is sure to have privacy advocates up in arms, although this is precisely the sort of work that spy agencies have been doing around the world for decades. The difference is that GCHQ has been doing it on a huge scale and, unlike others, it’s now been exposed. Never a good thing if your job is all about secrecy.

But this is the land that created James Bond; a fictional character perhaps but one whose foundations were built on a hint of truth.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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