We already knew that the U.S. spy agencies collect all kinds
on Americans, thanks to leaked documents from NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Now, in a fresh leak, we're learning that Brits are snooping on us, too -- tapping
the world's telephone and Internet traffic, and sharing that info with the
Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Britain's
version of the NSA, is allowed to tap more than 200 fiber-optic data cables
running through British territory, giving the organization access massive amounts
of telephone and Internet data, according to the Guardian, who revealed today that Snowden provided it with a
document detailing the UK spy agencies efforts to collect phone and web data.
GCHQ cable taps allow it to gather recordings of phone calls,
email content, Facebook entries and any Internet users web browsing history --
not exactly the anonymous metadata that we've been hearing about on the U.S.
side of the Atlantic.
What's not surprising is that the UK shares this information
with NSA. Remember, the two nations have their 70-year old "special relationship"
and are the founding members of the Five-Eyes intelligence sharing agreement,
formally known as the UKUSA agreement (pronounced you-kooza). The Five-Eyes are
members of a special club of former British colonies that gather and share
super secret signals intelligence with each other -- exactly the type of
information gathered by NSA and GCHQ.
Australia, Canada and New Zealand are the other three members of this
little club that was established by secret treaty during World War II.
How sensitive is the information shared between members? Rumor has it that until
1973, Australian prime ministers weren't even told about the program.
According to the Guardian,
Britain's ability to tap these fiber-optic cables makes it the web
eavesdropping powerhouse of the Five-Eyes, with the documents saying that of
the five, Britain has "the biggest Internet access."
UK officials insists that the information is collected
legally and hint that analyst access to content of collected communication is
extremely limited, with most of what is seen by spies being metadata, the basic
information of which telephone and internet users are talking to which, rather
than the content of their messages.
British officials boast that GCHQ "produces larger amounts
of metadata than NSA." Still, the Guardian reports that British personnel on
the team of 300 GCHQ and 250 NSA analysts sifting through the data were told that
"we have a light oversight regime compared to the U.S."
(Basically, this is the scenario Georgetown law professor
David Cole predicted
nine days ago in FP.)
The British paper is reporting that 850,000 NSA and employees
and private American contractors had access to the information gathered by
These spies were scooping up 600 million "telephone events"
a day and were able to process information from 46 cables at any given moment.
One of the documents quotes NSA boss Gen. Keith Alexander as urging British
spies to collect everything they could.
"Why can't we collect at the signals, all the time? Sounds
like a good summer homework project for Menwith," reads the top of a slide
shown by the Guardian that supposedly quotes Alexander during a 2008 visit to
the UK. The slide is titled, "Collect-it-all."
Menwith refers to RAF Menwith Hill, a secret signals
intelligence gathering facility in the English countryside (shown above) run by the British
Jay Healey, director of the Atlantic Council's cyber
statecraft initiative who served as a U.S. Air Force signals intelligence
officer in the 1990s
admitted yesterday that electronic spies want to
collect as much information as possible.
"The analogy I look at if you're dealing with
intel guys, especially collectors, whether that's NSA or any other country's,
is that they want to collect -- as an analogy -- a copy of every book ever
written, even if they happen to get U.S. books in there," said Healey during a
June 20 event at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
GCHQ operatives tapped the fibre-optic cables over the last
five years at the point where the transatlantic cables reach British shores --
these are the cables that move Internet and telephone data from North America
to Western Europe. All of this was
done with agreements with the communications companies, described by the
document as "intercept partners."
These companies are likely "compelled" to give the British
government access to their data via some sort of court order, much as they can
be in the United States.
A British source echoed statements by U.S. officials, who described
the bulk collection of American's cellphone call records as an effort to obtain
a haystack of information that would facilitate finding the needles of
"Essentially we have a process that allows us to select a
small number of needles in a haystack," the source told the paper. "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
have the impression that we are reading millions of emails, we are not. There
is no intention in this whole program to use it for UK domestic traffic -
British people talking to each other."
Last week, Deputy U.S. Attorney General Robert Cole defended bulk
collection of cellphone data and other business records to U.S. lawmakers.
"If you're looking for a needle in a haystack,
you've got to get the haystack first," said Cole during a June 18 House
intelligence committee hearing on the matter. "That's why we have the
ability under the [FISA] court order, to acquire . . . all of that data, we
don't get to use all of that data, necessarily."
So now the UK spies on the U.S. and the U.S. can spy
on the U.K. and both nations can share intelligence with each other. This begs
the question; how much does it matter if each country is barred from accessing
the contents of its citizens' communications without a court order?