UK fibre cable spying is “unacceptable”

Privacy campaigners have called on the government to clarify whether GCHQ has the technical and legal clout to spy on huge swathes of communications traffic.

Index on Censorship (IoC) said it was concerned by revelations that GCHQ has been tapping underground cables to pull out communications metadata and content. The group said the allegations meant GCHQ has been “circumventing” current UK law, and undermining human rights.

“The mass surveillance of citizens’ private communications is unacceptable – it both invades privacy and threatens freedom of expression,” said IoC CEO Kirsty Hughes.

“The government cannot continue to cite national security as a justification without revealing the extent of its intrusion and the legal basis for collecting data on this scale,” Hughes added. “Undermining freedom of expression through mass surveillance is more likely to endanger than defend our security.”

The mass surveillance of citizens’ private communications is unacceptable – it both invades privacy and threatens freedom of expression

Hughes’ comments follow allegations by The Guardian and whistleblower Edward Snowden that GCHQ has the capacity to tap into the submarine fibre-optic cables that conduct the vast majority of UK internet traffic.

According to documents leaked by Snowden, GCHQ has attached probes to the cables to siphon off huge amounts of communications data and store it for up to 30 days. That includes the content of phone calls, emails, social-media messages and browsing history. The news follows allegations that the US has been conducting its own mass surveillance program, Prism.

“It’s not just a US problem. The UK has a huge dog in this fight,” Snowden told The Guardian, saying it is “worse than the US”.

Secret agreements

GCHQ’s program, known as Tempora, allows it to tap at least 200 cables that go in and out of the UK, according to The Guardian – a vast undertaking that will have required co-operation from the numerous British and international firms that own and operate the underground network.

It isn’t known which companies agreed to co-operate, but a source told the paper that they were reimbursed for any expense incurred from the tapping and told that they would have been forced to participate if they didn’t sign up willingly.

The agency is apparently able to extract data from 46 cables at any one time, and hopes to expand its capacity as it builds more storage space to hold the growing backlog of data.

Since GCHQ’s probes suck in a huge amount of information, the agency has set up an automated filtering technique to delete anything that won’t be useful, and to flag up promising leads. For example, anything high volume but low value, such as peer-to-peer downloads, is automatically deleted. Other filtering techniques include searches by specific contact details or subjects of interest.

A source told the paper that the vast majority of data is deleted, but that’s unlikely to assuage fears that GCHQ is misusing legislation – specifically the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act – to spy on British citizens.

“There’s an auditing process to go back through the logs and see if it was justified or not. The vast majority of the data is discarded without being looked at… we simply don’t have the resources,” said the source.

Index on Censorship called on the government to clarify which laws were being used by GCHQ to justify its data collection processes.

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