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British spy agency reportedly taps into fiber-optic cables to intercept web data

British spy agency reportedly taps into fiber-optic cables to intercept web data

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GCHQ headquarters UK (Credit: GCHQ/Crown Copyright)
GCHQ headquarters UK (Credit: GCHQ/Crown Copyright)

Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) has been reportedly tapping into fiber-optic lines to intercept and store massive amounts of data flowing across the web, including emails, posts on social media sites like Facebook, video chats and calls, and records of what websites the public is visiting, according to a new report from The Guardian. The data collected in the spying program, which is called Tempora, is reportedly shared between the UK and the National Security Agency (NSA), the US spy organization behind the surveillance program PRISM. Between the GCHQ, the NSA, and US contractors, about 850,000 people have had access to the data, the report said.

Tempora began 18 months ago and during that time, the GCHQ collected data that "included recordings of phone calls, the content of email messages, entries on Facebook and the history of an internet user's access to websites," The Guardian said, noting that the British government considers its actions both secret and legal. The report says that data Snowden says Tempora is bigger than PRISM collected through Tempora is stored an analyzed for up to 30 days, and siphoned "under a system of safeguards, and had provided material that had led to significant breakthroughs in detecting and preventing serious crime." Edward Snowden — a former NSA contractor, who blew the whistle on PRISM two weeks ago with leaks to The Guardian and The Washington Post — is The Guardian's source for the leak on Tempora. The information from Snowden comes after a Q&A session with The Guardian in which Snowden defended his actions while also sidestepping questions about further details on PRISM. Snowden said then that he'd deliver more evidence of huge government spying programs, and today's Guardian report seems to follow through on that.

Snowden tells the publication that the data collected comes from both those who are and aren't suspected of any wrongdoing. Snowden also says that the UK's spying efforts are worse than the US's alleged intrusions. Tech companies such as Apple, Facebook, Google, and others have yet to fully detail their involvement in the government's pursuit of user data — though each company has challenged assertions that they provide the government with direct access. The Obama administration has defended the legality of the NSA's actions and downplayed privacy implications. And, so far, neither Snowden or The Guardian have publicly shared all the evidence on either PRISM or Tempora they say they have. The only thing that seems to be clear right now is that this saga is far from over.

Still too many unanswered questions

The Guardian said the Tempora documents that Snowden shared with it "suggest some companies have been paid for their co-operation and GCHQ went to great lengths to keep their names secret." The sources who worked with the GCHQ at each of these companies were given some anonymity within the agency, so that the government staff wouldn't know where the data they were looking at originated from, the report said. None of the companies working with the GCHQ on Tempora are named in the report, but not all of those cooperating are doing so willingly. "Should they decline, we can compel them to do so," a government source told The Guardian. "They have no choice." The GCHQ has used secret warrants to force companies into sharing user data, the report said. The internal disguising of sources was done due to a "fear that the role of the companies as intercept partners would cause 'high-level political fallout,'" The Guardian said.

600 million 'telephone events' observed each day

Tempora, the report says, is on a scale larger than any known surveillance program coming from the US or its allies, some of which allegedly have an agreement to work together on such programs. "Two years after the project was first trialled, it was able to boast it had the 'biggest internet access' of any member of the Five Eyes electronics eavesdropping alliance, comprising the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand," The Guardian said. While hundreds of thousands of people in the UK and the US have access to Tempora data, the two nations also have a team of 300 GCHQ and 250 NSA analysts tasked with combing through the findings. According to the documents Snowden handed over to the publication, the GCHQ was able to observe 600 million "telephone events" each day last year.

The Guardian's unnamed government source said in the report that the GCHQ and NSA aren't looking over every bit of data collected. "Essentially, we have a process that allows us to select a small number of needles in a haystack," the source said. "There are certain triggers that allow you to discard or not examine a lot of data so you are just looking at needles. If you had the impression we are reading millions of emails, we are not."