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BT and Vodafone Helped GHCQ Snoop on Transatlantic Fibre Optic Cables

Saturday, August 3rd, 2013 (8:03 am) - Score 2,472

Telecoms giant BT (codename “Remedy“) and Vodafone (codename “Gerontic“) are among several major telecoms operators that have been named by former NSA employee, Edward Snowden, as helping the UK Government’s Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) to snoop on more than 200 of the world’s transatlantic fibre optic cable links.

The not particularly surprising revelations follow on from earlier reports that revealed how GHCQ’s top secret operation Tempora (here) had been quietly tapping into the fibre optic cables that come into and go out of the United Kingdom for almost two years (albeit only the basic 10Gbps links.. for now.).

Tempora typically stored the somewhat indiscriminate data it collected, which allegedly included everything from recordings of phone calls to the content of emails, website visits and Facebook updates, for a period of up to 30 days (any longer would be a nightmare for even modern storage systems). It’s claimed that a sophisticated system then sniffed through the data to find specific needles in a haystack of information.

Documents leaked earlier by Edward Snowden have now revealed which of the major telecoms and network giants were involved. Each of the firms, which could potentially stand to lose some of their international business as a result of the allegations, was given a super-secret codename to mask their identity. This obviously worked extremely well because The Guardian has linked them all.

GHCQ Snooping Telecoms Firm (“Codename”)
BT (“Remedy“)
Verizon Business (“Dacron“)
Vodafone Cable (“Gerontic“)
Global Crossing (“Pinnage“)
Level 3 (“Little“)
Viatel (“Vitreous“)
Interoute (“Streetcar“)

It’s interesting to ponder whether or not they got to choose the codename themselves. Naturally some of the operators (BT) didn’t want to comment on the report but the others did say that they were obliged to comply with UK law.

This is believed to be a reference to 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).

A Spokes-Spy-Person for Vodafone said:

Media reports on these matters have demonstrated a misunderstanding of the basic facts of European, German and UK legislation and of the legal obligations set out within every telecommunications operator’s licence … Vodafone complies with the law in all of our countries of operation.

Vodafone does not disclose any customer data in any jurisdiction unless legally required to do so. Questions related to national security are a matter for governments not telecommunications operators.”

The fact that ordinary UK domestic traffic isn’t likely to have been the primary focus of GHCQ’s snooping effort (that was more the semi-defunct Comms Data Bill’s focus) might put a few minds at rest but then you never really know whether what the intelligences services “sources” are saying is true. International investors and other countries may have a different viewpoint. At least it’s all done in secret though, right? Oh.

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Mark Jackson
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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24 Responses
  1. Avatar dragoneast says:

    When you’ve the technology you’re going to use it. We all do.

    Secrecy makes anything OK, it always has.

    The Secret Services may get the information they want, but there’s absolutely no law of inevitability that they can use it effectively, and the greater the amount of information the greater the probability they can’t/won’t. Duh, we didn’t think of that one.

  2. Avatar Mark says:

    No shocker BT were involved.

  3. Avatar JNeuhoff says:

    Of course, it there was proper broadband in the UK, you could use VOIP, or video conferencing, and the corresponding internet protocols could be all encrypted.

    1. Avatar TheFacts says:

      What’s ‘proper broadband’? Bandwidth needed for VOIP is?

    2. Avatar FibreFred says:

      Encryption? Yeah… that’ll fox GCHQ

    3. Avatar TheFacts says:

      KMfviogg tbzt ju xjmm.

    4. Avatar timeless says:

      that only works if the VoIP provider doesnt have links to them.. for example Skype uses encryption however its also owned by Microsoft which has been known to collaborate with the american spying program which renders all the encryption null and void.

      now the big issue here is while you might be right in essence lm pretty sure we wont know every company who is involved in government endorsed spying and lm pretty sure these companies wont be eager to admit they are involved which means we dont know the extent to how much of our communications have been logged!

    5. Avatar Bob2002 says:

      @FibreFred – Modern encryption will indeed bring GCHQ to a grinding halt if it’s implemented properly.

    6. Avatar FibreFred says:

      Bob2002, sorry but you can’t be serious?

    7. Avatar Bob2002 says:

      I’m serious when I imply that GCHQ can’t break public key cryptography, and other forms of encryption where it doesn’t have a key. What evidence do you have suggesting the popular methods of encryption used have been broken?

    8. Avatar FibreFred says:

      I’ll just leave my thoughts there, with a final word


    9. Avatar dragoneast says:

      I’m not quite understanding this discussion. I’ve used encryption even on dial-up, as the process takes place at either end of the connection not during transit.

      The monitoring programs seem to look at the end points, who is sending to whom; encryption usually refers to the content. With a decent logarithm and password, the Government won’t have access to content, but if their suspicions are aroused the appropriate legislation is in place to require the disclosure of a password. Frankly for almost everybody almost all of the time their content is of absolutely no interest, and it would send you to sleep with boredom (which might not be such a bad thing for the spooks, and a few others I could think of).

    10. Avatar Bob2002 says:

      @FibreFred – You need to read up on basic cryptographic techniques to understand why you’re completely wrong.

    11. Avatar FibreFred says:

      You mean like “WEP” Bob? 😉

      No seriously I don’t need to read up, I’m just surprised that you think that a form of encryption made by man cannot be broken by man, or should I say… broken by probably most famous code breaking establishment in the UK

      Hence my naive comment

    12. Avatar Bob2002 says:

      Just because weak encryption methods have existed doesn’t mean all encryption methods are weak. It is, for instance, impossible(by which I mean it is a mathematical fact) to decrypt data encoded with a one-time pad and that method was invented in 1882. The made by man can be broken by man argument is simply not true.

    13. Avatar FibreFred says:

      “Just because weak encryption methods have existed doesn’t mean all encryption methods are weak.”

      It doesn’t no, it was just an example. I just think its naive to think a form of encryption invented in uncrackable.

    14. Avatar Bob2002 says:

      >I just think its naive to think a form of encryption invented in uncrackable.

      Well I’ve already given you one example that actually is provably uncrackable. You can’t just go around implying GCHQ has code breakers therefore they can decrypt all data, that is too simplistic.

  4. Avatar dragoneast says:

    The waters might just be a bit more murky that we appreciate.

    How much encryption technology originated within the (US?) military? And what is the influence of the export controls on that technology?

    1. Avatar FibreFred says:


  5. Avatar adam says:

    If im honest I don’t really care that any agency around the world keeps tabs on everything, if it helps future terrorist attacks on the scale of 9/11 and the July bombings in London im all for monitoring.

    I don’t understand why its such a shock to the whole world that governments do this, we have freedom of speech but that’s also the beauty in itself as that freedom of speech is what gives the agencies more information.

    People should stop complaining about this and support it.

    Were not having any human rights taken away from us, we still live in a free society.

    1. Avatar DanielM says:

      “If im honest I don’t really care that any agency around the world keeps tabs on everything, if it helps future terrorist attacks on the scale of 9/11 and the July bombings in London im all for monitoring.”

      That’s how they get away with it. Brainless idiots like you come out with dangerous stuff like that.

    2. Avatar zemadeiran says:

      Very strange from someone who pushes organic solutions……

  6. Avatar ant says:

    Shocking and disgusting behaviour from BT and vodafone.

  7. Avatar FibreFred says:

    Once again no real surprise here that international carriers are involved. What actual choice would they be given here? I assume some legal documents were put in place to “request” this level of access.

    I wouldn’t surprise me if some of the peering companies are also involved.

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