BT, Vodafone among firms passing details to spy agency
Fears of customer backlash as firms give GCHQ unlimited access to undersea cables
Verizon, BT and Vodafone Cable have given GCHQ secret unlimited access to their network of undersea cables.
Some of the world’s leading telecoms firms, including BT and Vodafone, are secretly collaborating with Britain’s spy agency GCHQ, and are passing on details of their customers’ phone calls, email messages and Facebook entries, documents leaked by the whistleblower Edward Snowden show.
BT, Vodafone Cable, and the American firm Verizon Business - together with four other smaller providers - have given GCHQ secret unlimited access to their network of undersea cables. The cables carry much of the world’s phone calls and internet traffic.
In June the Guardian revealed details of GCHQ’s ambitious data-hoovering programmes, Mastering the Internet and Global Telecoms Exploitation, aimed at scooping up as much online and telephone traffic as possible.
It emerged GCHQ was able to tap into fibre-optic cables and store huge volumes of data for up to 30 days. That operation, codenamed Tempora, has been running for 20 months.
Yesterday Germany’s Suddeutsche newspaper published the most highly sensitive aspect of this operation - the names of the commercial companies working secretly with GCHQ, and giving the agency access to their customers’ private communications.
The paper said it had seen a copy of an internal GCHQ powerpoint presentation from 2009 discussing Tempora.
The document identified for the first time which telecoms companies are working with GCHQ’s “special source” team. It gives secret codenames for each firm, with BT (“Remedy”), Verizon Business (“Dacron”), and Vodafone Cable (“Gerontic”). The other firms include Global Crossing (“Pinnage”), Level 3 (“Little”), Viatel (“Vitreous”) and Interoute (“Streetcar”).
The companies refused to comment on any specifics relating to Tempora, but several noted they were obliged to comply with UK and EU law.
The revelations are likely to dismay GCHQ and the British prime minister’s office at Number 10 Downing Street, who are fearful that BT and the other firms will suffer a backlash from customers furious that their private data and intimate emails have been secretly passed to a government spy agency.
In June a source with knowledge of intelligence said the companies had no choice but to co-operate in this operation. They are forbidden from revealing the existence of warrants compelling them to allow GCHQ access to the cables. None of the companies commented directly on the Tempora programme when contacted yesterday, but several said they had no choice but to comply with UK and EU laws.
Together, these seven companies operate a huge share of the high-capacity undersea fibre-optic cables that make up the backbone of the internet’s architecture.
GCHQ’s mass tapping operation has been built up over the past five years by attaching intercept probes to the transatlantic cables where they land on British shores. GCHQ’s station in Bude, north Cornwall, plays a role. The cables carry data to western Europe from telephone exchanges and internet servers in north America.
This allows GCHQ and NSA analysts to search vast amounts of data on the activity of millions of internet users. Metadata - the sites users visit, whom they email, and similar information - is stored for up to 30 days, while the content of communications is typically stored for three days.
GCHQ has the ability to tap cables carrying both internet data and phone calls. By last year GCHQ was handling 600 million “telephone events” each day, had tapped more than 200 fibre-optic cables and was able to process data from at least 46 of them at a time.
Each of the cables carries data at a rate of 10 gigabits per second, so the tapped cables had the capacity, in theory, to deliver more than 21 petabytes a day - equivalent to sending all the information in all the books in the British Library 192 times every 24 hours.