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'Worse than NSA': UK Spy Agency Amasses 'World's Communication'

New Guardian exclusive reveals secret database of phone and internet records that dwarfs previous revelations

Lauren McCauley, staff writer

Always seemingly in lockstep with the United States, new reports reveal that the UK's spy agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), has gained covert access to the "world's communications" and has amassed an infinite database, which they freely share with their US counterpart, the NSA.

"It's not just a US problem. The UK has a huge dog in this fight," former NSA contractor Edward Snowden told the Guardian. "They [GCHQ] are worse than the US."

This information, revealed in a Guardian exclusive published Friday, was gleaned from documents leaked to the news outlet by Snowden earlier this month.

The documents reveal a five-year-old government surveillance system that dwarfs all others in its scale and capacity to collect metadata on "the world's communications."

The spy agency's programs, appropriately called Mastering the Internet and Global Telecoms Exploitation, tap transatlantic fiber-optic cables that "carry the world's phone calls and internet traffic" by attaching "intercept probes" where the cables meet British soil before "carrying data to western Europe from telephone exchanges and internet servers in North America."

The sheer scale of the program trumps any other that has yet to come to light. As the report notes, the GCHQ "produces larger amounts of metadata than NSA."

In the US, officials have downplayed the value and scope of information that can be gleaned from such mass swathes of data. However, as Jay Stanley and Ben Wizner of the ACLU explained following earlier revelations of the NSA spy program:

Even without intercepting the content of communications, the government can use metadata to learn our most intimate secrets – anything from whether we have a drinking problem to whether we’re gay or straight. The suggestion that metadata is “no big deal” – a view that, regrettably, is still reflected in the law – is entirely out of step with the reality of modern communications.

“The public doesn’t understand,” adds mathematician and former Sun Microsystems engineer Susan Landau. “It’s much more intrusive than content.”

The UK spy agency collects 600 million "telephone events" each day, and with over 200 tapped cables carrying information at a rate of 10 gigabits per second, they are capturing the equivalent of "all the information in all the books in the British Library 192 times every 24 hours."

Also, the amount of data they are able to collect is constantly growing, as more cables are tapped and storage capabilities continue to grow.

As the Guardian reports:

One key innovation has been GCHQ's 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 and the NSA are consequently able to access and process vast quantities of communications between entirely innocent people, as well as targeted suspects.

This includes 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.

Not unlike the United States' rational for the allegedly legal NSA surveillance system, the GCHQ justifies these programs by applying old laws to new technology. Under the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), the tapping of "defined targets" must be authorized by a warrant signed by the home secretary or foreign secretary.

However, as the Guardian explains, the GCHQ has taken advantage of "an obscure clause" which allows the foreign secretary to sign a certificate for the interception of broad categories of material, as long as one end of the monitored communications is abroad. 

In this case, they write, the "criteria at any one time are secret and are not subject to any public debate."

Beginning in May 2012, 300 analysts from GCHQ and 250 from the NSA began the process of sifting through this "flood of data," and a reported 850,000 NSA employees and US private contractors have access to the growing database.


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