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Encouraged by the NSA, UK Spy Agency Set Out to ‘Master the Internet’

Extract from a secret document NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden provided to The Guardian

Documents provided by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden to The Guardian reveal how the UK spy agency, GCHQ, set out to “master the internet” by sweeping up as many phone and online traffic as possible. They show the GCHQ has processed massive amounts of data on innocent people not targeted and passed the data on to the NSA to utilize for whatever purpose.

The latest story by Ewen MacAskill, Julian Borger, Nick Hopkins, Nick Davies and James Ball details how GCHQ developed the “ability to tap into and store huge volumes of data drawn from fibre-optic cables for up to 30 days so that it can be sifted and analysed. That operation, codenamed Tempora, has been running for some 18 months.”

GCHQ has collected, according to the story, “recordings of phone calls, the content of email messages, entries on Facebook and the history of any internet user’s access to websites – all of which is deemed legal, even though the warrant system was supposed to limit interception to a specified range of targets.”

Snowden told The Guardian that this program of “suspicionless surveillance,” is “not just a US problem. The UK has a huge dog in this fight.”  And GCHQ is “worse than the US.”

Part of the escalation of suspicionless surveillance appears to have come from the NSA pushing for “better intelligence to support NATO’s military effort in Afghanistan.” The United States had apparently felt like the information sharing relationship between the two countries had been “too lopsided over the past 20 years.”

GCHQ developed its capabilities so much that in 2010—two years since testing Tempora—the agency 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.”

Also, The Guardian story notes that GCHQ was claiming it was capable of producing “larger amounts of metadata” than the NSA—the “basic information on who has been contacting whom, without detailing the content.” And, last year in May, GCHQ had 300 analysts going through the flow of data while NSA had 250 analysts sifting through it as well.

The Guardian further describes:

 The papers seen by the Guardian make clear that at some point – it is not clear when – GCHQ began to plug into the cables that carry internet traffic into and out of the country, and garner material in a process repeatedly referred to as SSE. This is thought to mean special source exploitation.

The capability, which was authorised by legal warrants, gave GCHQaccess to a vast amount of raw information, and the TINT programme a potential way of being able to store it.

GCHQ lawyers have contended it would be “impossible to list the total number of people targeted” because, as they put it, “This would be an infinite list which we couldn’t manage.”

While a tribunal exists to investigate complaints about the improper use of data, NSA analysts were apparently told by GCHQ in 2009 that the tribunal had always found in their favor so there was no reason to be worried.

An internal document obtained quoted now-NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander who was visiting Menwith Hill in June 2008 and asked, “Why can’t we collect all the signals all the time?” He added, “Sounds like a good summer project for Menwith.”

The Guardian explains that “satellite interception accounted for only a small part of the network traffic.” It now mostly “travels on fiber-optic cables and the UK’s position on the western edge of Europe” gives it “natural access to cables emerging from the Atlantic.”

The latest revelations come after yesterday’s story, which revealed secret rules that allow the NSA to collect data from US persons without a warrant. They also come after “Project Chess,” a program Skype setup to make it easier for the NSA to access users’ data, was revealed. And, earlier this week, it was revealed by The Guardian that GCHQ had setup “fake internet cafes” to spy on foreign dignitaries during G20 meetings.

During a Guardian chat on June, Snowden commented, “If an NSA, FBI, CIA, [Defense Intelligence Agency], etc analyst has access to query raw [signals intelligence] databases, they can enter and get results for anything they want. Phone number, email, user ID, cell phone handset ID (IMEI), and so on – it’s all the same. The restrictions against this are policy based, not technically based, and can change at any time.”

Snowden also addressed the reality that many innocent persons’ communications from around the world, who are not US citizens, are having their data and personal information collected by one of the most powerful countries in the world:

…[T]he “US Persons” protection in general is a distraction from the power and danger of this system. Suspicionless surveillance does not become okay simply because it’s only victimizing 95% of the world instead of 100%. Our founders did not write that “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all US Persons are created equal.”

The NSA, according to Snowden, “Routinely lies in response to congressional inquiries about the scope of surveillance in America.” He said in the interview with The Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald, “When [senator Ron] Wyden and [senator Mark] Udall asked about the scale of this, they [the NSA] said it did not have the tools to provide an answer. We do have the tools and I have maps showing where people have been scrutinised most. We collect more digital communications from America than we do from the Russians.”

He argued he was not a “hero” for bringing this information to the world’s attention. He was doing this out of self-interest.

“I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity,” he stated. And, he took action because what the NSA is doing, to him, is an “existential threat to democracy.”

Snowden remains in Hong Kong. His options are not as limited as one might think. NBC News reported, “He doesn’t need to escape, since until any extradition request arrives Snowden is a free man. He’s broken no Hong Kong law and is free to leave if he so chooses.”


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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."