Brit spies GCHQ harvest all undersea cable comms, all UK calls and data, share with 850,000+ NSA spooks and contractors

The Guardian has published information from another Edward Snowden leak, this one detailing a British wiretapping program by the UK spy agency GCHQ that puts Prism to shame. The GCHQ program, called Tempora, stores all submarine cable traffic and all domestic traffic (Internet packets and recordings of phone-calls) for 30 days, using NSA tools to sort and search it; the quid-pro-quo being that the NSA gets to access this data, too. The program is reportedly staffed by 300 GCHQ spies and 250 NSA spies, and the data produced by the taps is made available to 850,000 NSA employees and contractors. This is all carried out under the rubric of RIPA, the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, a UK electronic spying law passed by Tony Blair's Labour government.

The GCHQ mass tapping operation has been built up over five years by attaching intercept probes to transatlantic fibre-optic cables where they land on British shores carrying data to western Europe from telephone exchanges and internet servers in north America.

This was done under secret agreements with commercial companies, described in one document as "intercept partners".

The papers seen by the Guardian suggest some companies have been paid for the cost of their co-operation and GCHQ went to great lengths to keep their names secret. They were assigned "sensitive relationship teams" and staff were urged in one internal guidance paper to disguise the origin of "special source" material in their reports for fear that the role of the companies as intercept partners would cause "high-level political fallout".

The source with knowledge of intelligence said on Friday the companies were obliged to co-operate in this operation. They are forbidden from revealing the existence of warrants compelling them to allow GCHQ access to the cables.

"There's an overarching condition of the licensing of the companies that they have to co-operate in this. Should they decline, we can compel them to do so. They have no choice."

GCHQ taps fibre-optic cables for secret access to world's communications


  1. I must say, the GCHQ logo is much classier than that soak-your-underwear ominous eye-on-pyramid-scanning-the-earth one made for the now defunct* TIA program.

    * “Trust us.”

    1.  Yeah, it is quite classy. Protective arms – or a fence – encircling the Realm (represented by the crown, of course) to keep it all safe.

  2. So as much as I’ve been wondering about how this impacts our privacy, it occurs to me that there is a lot of cross-Atlantic communication that relates to finance and trading.

    Without oversight, what prevents spooks from reading about business transactions and profiting from them?  Insider trading by outsiders, if they teach themselves what to look for.  Given the potential profits of even a tiny, highly relevant tidbit of information, what are the odds this hasn’t already happened?

    In other words, is the UK government willing to accept that by breaching the privacy of every single byte of communication that happens, they completely undermine the entire financial system – if nobody can trust the stock exchange in the UK they will go elsewhere and obliterate the economy in the UK.  US too, I suppose.

      1. Sure, but encryption?  Not all traffic is created equal.  Privately held strong keys on either end could protect packet contents. I’ve argued a number of times that NSA probably has raided the Cert Authorities, so run-of-the-mill email encryption thru major sites is possibly a weak point of entry.  But self-generated certs, never transmitted via plain text, passwords never shared, are pretty darned hard to break.

          1.  All it takes is one intercepted text message or phone call at a key moment.  One email on a personal account with the wrong byte of information.  And a smart person can make an exploit that ‘earns’ m/billions and undermines the system.

            “This deal is a bust” right as merger talks fail or something – that would make millions if someone knew that a day in advance.  Even ten minutes in advance. 

            Encryption is fine, but are you contending that all email, cell phone and text messaging between financial types is currently encrypted or ever will be? 

            For that matter, a knowledge of the search history of a key player would be highly useful to the right person.  A CEO in negotiations to sell her company that is looking at beachfront in Bahamas in her off-hours.

            I can think of a thousand ways insider information was abused prior to total surveillance.  A million ways come to mind, available to far more people, now that the GCHQ and NSA are watching, listening and recording everything.  Without confidence of security, lots of business activity becomes moral hazard and slows down or stops.

            Basically they are outing themselves as enemies of the system of (somewhat) democratic (somewhat) capitalism we currently purport to defend.

            Of course, only a really intelligent person could pull off such a scam.  Someone with a knowledge of systems and system weaknesses, and a close knowledge of computers.  I doubt anyone at the NSA or GCHQ has anything like those skills.  ;)

    1. All this time I thought the government were just being kind by sending out people to hold up the string in my tin can telephone system…

  3. The CCTV government is spying on people? Gasp!

    850,000 NSA employees??? Law of averages says that thousands(?) Of criminals have access to this data? Real nice.

    1. What’s scary about that stat, to me, is that it took nearly 10 years for one of those million people to leak the details of the program.  I mean, really guys?  Dang.  People sure do drink the kool-aid, don’t they?

    2. The 850,000 is clearly a typo.  That is the figure that has been bandied about as the number of individuals in the US with a TS clearance.  Not everyone who has a TS clearance has access to anything the NSA captures.

  4. Meanwhile, good old Woz says PRISM is unconstitutional and he understandably seems very upset about it…

  5. It’s called Tempora to sell the idea that it is temporary. Of course, it is permanent, which is why it is necessary to sell the idea that it’s temporary.

  6. Drip, drip, drip.. Next week: NSA brain implants sending realtime data. Seen your dentist lately?

    1. I know what you mean.  They’re remaking Logan’s Run, and each and every one of us has a starring role.

  7. First point: I am *not* justifying what GCHQ, or the NSA, have been up to for the last decade.

    Main point of this post: Interestingly, the British have been tapping all trans-Atlantic comms for a very long time. During World War One, the British Admiralty set up the fore-runner of GCHQ in Room 40 of the Admiralty Building in London. The boffins who came to work in that room built up a great expertise in a range of arcane fields – radio traffic analysis, radio direction finding, and of course decryption. Among the advantages they had at the time was that every single trans-Atlantic cable was routed through Great Britain somewhere. British Post ditifully delivered to Room 40 copies of all messages passing through. Then the lads – and lad-ettes – in Room 40 got busy trying to figure out who was talking to whom, and what they were saying.

    Perhaps their greatest triumph was deciphering the Zimmerman telegram, sent in January 1917, and deciphered about a month later. This was, of course, the telegram that finally pushed the US over the edge and into WWI.

    I don’t think the British have ever been /not/ copying all trans-Atlantic comms since that time.

    Given that weight of history, I think the financial markets are NOT going to react with shock and alarm. A big ‘meh’ and carry on business-as-usual is probably more like it.

    Final point: I am *not* justifying what GCHQ, or the NSA, have been up to for the last decade.

    1. My problem with my government tapping all of my business communications, besides the obvious, is that they’re sharing it with the NSA.  Since both countries have a history of using state intel to give commercial advantages to big business, that’s a big deal.  (London, will probably react with “meh”, but then London is as utterly corrupt as it gets.)

      1.  Yeah, I agree with all that. *My* point, such as it is, is that the financial markets – everywhere, not just London – have been reacting to what is functionally the same level of trans-Atlantic snooping for the past 100 years with a collective “meh.” I just don’t see this changing anythin.

        1.  Well, 100 years ago, as devious as swindlers and scammers might have been, they had fewer options as far as obscurity.

          Now, with complex derivatives and the staggering complexity of trading systems, a scammer or small group of scammers could steal billions with the right nugget of information.  On top of that, they would do so knowing that no human would ever find out.

          The fact it is possible and the people working at these places are exactly the right sort of brains and ethical types to do it implies, very strongly, that it is happening or has happened.

          The rest of us are just the big suckers with the RSP/401ks and pensions, feeding these spies who work outside the law and have zero accountability.  I have a problem with this, whether it is 100 years old or just started yesterday.

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