People power needed to stop wiretapping by governments
Britain has notoriously lax legislation around data protection and surveillance
There had long been rumours of a Government Communications Headquarters-run surveillance network called Echelon, that was tapping into phone and now, internet traffic
Over a decade ago, not long after Ireland got its first transatlantic internet cable links to the US, one international consortium toyed with putting in a cable that would land in France. The point was to route internet traffic around the main European internet hub in London. Why? Privacy and surveillance concerns played a part. There had long been rumours of a Government Communications Headquarters-run surveillance network called Echelon, that was tapping into phone and now, internet traffic. The project never came to fruition.
Fast forward to 2014, and it turns out the concerns about cable surveillance between Britain and Ireland were absolutely valid. In a story that broke this week, new documents released by whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that GCHQ had a little arrangement whereby it was tapping data passing over the Irish-British cables that connect Ireland to the global internet.
Releases from Snowden
As TJ McIntyre, chairman of Digital Rights Ireland, noted in the article: “That means that they can rewind and listen to anybody’s voice conversations, read anybody’s email, monitor anybody’s web browsing from up to three days ago.” There’s an excellent analysis of how the internet surveillance scheme worked, here: iti.ms/1vmKUFB. It notes: “GCHQ had access to 63 undersea internet cables, 29 of which with the help of Gerontic [the codename for a group revealed as Cable & Wireless, eventually bought by Vodafone in 2012]. This accounted for about 70 per cent of the total amount of internet data that GCHQ had access to in 2009.”
According to the Snowden documents, all leaked to a German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, all the principal British-Irish internet connector cables were targeted. GCHQ has said it follows restrictions on its access to and use of such data fully, and Vodafone – the operator of the key Irish-British subsea internet cable Solas, initially laid by Cable &Wireless –has said it fully complies with laws around giving access to such data rivers. Vodafone and Eircom, which has a 50 per cent interest in Solas, told this newspaper they knew nothing about the alleged intelligence activity on the Irish cable.
But this is all meaningless waffle, because Britain has notoriously lax legislation around data protection, data access and surveillance. That’s why GCHQ was able also to capture video streams from Yahoo without informing Yahoo at all – an incident also revealed in a Snowden leak which so infuriated Yahoo that it moved its European headquarters from Britain to Dublin. When Snowden’s lawyer, Ben Wizner, was in Dublin recently, I spoke to him about the odd fact that most international attention has focused on the surveillance activities and programmes of the US National Security Agency, even though Snowden’s documents revealed Britain’s GCHQ as a more egregious privacy offender.
Yet – unlike the US Congress and indeed, the US president – the British government has responded only in defence of its national surveillance agency and its activities, and Britain has seen only muted public outcry. This contrasts with the sharp and loud response of both citizens and businesses in the US, which has forced months of public debate and proposals for greater oversight of NSA programmes.
‘NSA loved the GCHQ’Citizen Four
As Wizner noted, “The only solutions here are global solutions.” I believe those must be driven from the bottom up, not the top down. If citizens don’t demand real change from the companies whose services they use, and their national governments, little will change.