Thanks to more classified documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, The Guardian is now reporting that a British spy agency has tapped into trans-Atlantic fiber optic cables, allowing them access to everything from email and Facebook messages to internet search histories and phone calls. Which they gather indiscriminately. Oh, and they're sharing it with the NSA.
The British agency in question, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), is the overseas equivalent of our NSA, but because the extent of data they're collecting is so massive, they don't have the "resources" to analyze it all themselves. According to The Guardian:
The sheer scale of the agency's ambition is reflected in the titles of its two principal components: Mastering the Internet and Global Telecoms Exploitation, aimed at scooping up as much online and telephone traffic as possible. This is all being carried out without any form of public acknowledgement or debate.
But even if they can't analyze the information immediately, the GCHQ's sheer ability to tap into these global information-carrying cables has made the agency "an intelligence superpower," The Guardian noting:
By 2010, 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 electronic eavesdropping alliance, comprising the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
And if the metadata collected by the NSA seemed troubling, you probably won't be too happy to learn that the GCHQ "produces larger amounts of metadata than NSA," according to UK officials. So how does someone even begin to try to sort through that sort of data? Well, fortunately for the GCHQ, in addition to the 300 of their own analysts they had sifting through the mounds of intelligence, 250 of their friends over at the NSA were happy to lend a hand.
To actually tap the cables, the GHCQ attached intercept probes at points on the fiber-optic cables (on British soil) where they brought in data from telephone and internet servers in the US. And all of this was done in agreement with "intercept partners"—or in other words, commercial corporations. But just because they had access to all this data doesn't mean they were reading all this data. As the anonymous intelligence source told The Guardian:
Essentially, we have a process that allows us to select a small number of needles in a haystack. We are not looking at every piece of straw. 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. There is no intention in this whole programme to use it for looking at UK domestic traffic – British people talking to each other.
That being said, by the summer of 2011, over 200 "interception points" had been created, all of which apparently carried data at 10 gigabits per second. To put that into perspective, even if a list of targeted individuals was requested, as the GCHQ's lawyers put it, it would be impossible and "an infinite list which we couldn't manage."
Plus, the GCHQ has the capacity to store huge quantities of tapped content for 3 days and metadata for up to 30 days, so they can take their time as they go through the hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians' private information. This project, codenamed Tempora, has been going on for roughly 18 months.
However, "a source with knowledge of intelligence" is claiming that the data was collected under entirely legal terms. Even if that proves to be true, the fact that not only are both the United States and Britain working together to collect data, but they're also doing so arbitrarily in such massive quantity is, to say the least, highly troubling. And the GCHQ is currently working to construct even higher capacity cables that could carry data at 100 gigabits a second—so if this is somehow legal, they're nowhere near done yet. [The Guardian]