Revealed: British intelligence agency secretly accesses the world’s phone calls, internet traffic
By End the Lie
In yet another revelation of widespread spying, we have now learned that the British intelligence agency GCHQ has secretly gained access to the massive network of cables carrying the world’s phone calls and internet traffic.
Furthermore, we now know that the agency has begun processing the immense amount of personal information provided by the streams, which it then shares with its partner, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA).
The NSA itself has been under fire after the PRISM program – and the related Boundless Informant software – was revealed by leaker Edward Snowden, who also leaked the document revealing the GCHQ program to the Guardian.
The revelations have been so damaging that Obama was forced to attempt to defend the program in Germany despite strong opposition. We also have seen the Director of National Intelligence lie under oath while Attorney General Eric Holder claimed the leaks were “extremely damaging” to national security. All of the government’s language used when talking about the program has been deceptive at best.
While some in Washington D.C. have been working to get more information about this program and the legal authorization behind it, the majority of the Senate skipped out on a major hearing.
Now it seems that whereas previously it looked like it was the NSA collecting most of the data and sharing it with GCHQ, the British intelligence agency is running a massive collection program of their own.
“It’s not just a US problem. The UK has a huge dog in this fight,” Snowden said to the Guardian. “They [GCHQ] are worse than the US.”
GCHQ’s two programs, called Mastering the Internet and Global Telecoms Exploitation, are focused on gathering up as much information as possible without any public debate or even acknowledgment.
As part of an operation codenamed Tempora, the agency has for around 18 months been able to “tap into and store huge volumes of data drawn from fiber-optic cables for up to 30 days so that it can be sifted and analyzed,” according to the Guardian.
This results in communications between completely innocent people being accessed and processed, along with those of targeted suspects.
The variety of information is staggering: phone call recordings, email message content, Facebook entries and the history of anyone’s access to websites.
Somehow, all of this is deemed legal, according to the Guardian, despite the fact that the warrant system was supposed to restrict interception to a specified range of targets.
An unnamed source “with knowledge of intelligence” claimed that the data was actually collected legally under a system of safeguards – much like the claims made by individuals in the U.S. government – and “had provided material that had led to significant breakthroughs in detecting and preventing serious crime.”
Yet when Americans were given guidelines for the use of the data collected through this system, they were told in a legal briefing by GCHQ lawyers, “We have a light oversight regime compared with the U.S.”
Given what we now know about the U.S. oversight system, that should be troubling. Even more so when we realize that Americans were told it was “your call” to judge the necessity and proportionality of what they were allowed to look for.
According to the Guardian, “a total of 850,000 NSA employees and US private contractors with top secret clearance had access to GCHQ databases.”
These databases must be massive considering the fact that the documents reveal that GCHQ was handling some 600 million “telephone events” every single day.
The agency had also tapped over 200 fiber-optic cables and was able to simultaneously process data from no less than 46 cables at a time.
Since a single cable carries 10 gigabits per second in data, “the tapped cables had the capacity, in theory, to deliver more than 21 petabytes a day – equivalent to sending all the information in all the books in the British Library 192 times every 24 hours,” according to the Guardian.
If that wasn’t concerning enough, GCHQ is constantly tapping more cables and the storage facilities for the data are in a state of constant expansion as well. The aim is to be able to process thousands of gigabits at a time.
The massive Tempora program “has been built up over five years by attaching intercept probes to transatlantic fiber-optic cables where they land on British shores carrying data to western Europe from telephone exchanges and internet servers in north America,” according to the Guardian.
This was accomplished via secret agreements with commercial companies described as “intercept partners” in one document.
According to the Guardian, the documents reveal that some of the corporations were actually paid for the cost of their cooperation with GCHQ, which also took major steps to keep their identities secret.
In one internal guidance paper, the companies were assigned “sensitive relationship teams” and staff members were urged to disguise the origin of what they called “special source” material in their reports.
This was based on a fear that the role of the companies as “intercept partners” would cause “high-level political fallout.”
Yet the same unnamed source said that the companies were obliged to cooperate with the GCHQ program and are “forbidden from revealing the existence of warrants compelling them to allow GCHQ access to the cables.”
If companies attempt to refuse to choose not to cooperate, “we can compel them to do so. They have no choice,” the source said.
While the source claimed, “There is no intention in this whole program to use it for looking at UK domestic traffic – British people talking to each other,” we now know that there is a lot of leeway in how the NSA’s system works.
Furthermore, the entire legal basis for the operation is questionable, as the Guardian points out, since the law legitimizing the operation was signed 13 years ago “with no inkling of the scale on which GCHQ would attempt to exploit the certificates, enabling it to gather and process data regardless of whether it belongs to identified targets.”
To make matters even worse, the categories of material subject to surveillance are secret and not subject to public debate. GCHQ’s compliance with the certificates signed by the foreign secretary are audited by GCHQ itself and the results of the audits are kept secret.
To drive home just how massive this program really is, GCHQ lawyers said it would be impossible to list the total number of people targeted by the program because “this would be an infinite list which we couldn’t manage.”
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