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."