When will it end? Fresh revelations from Edward Snowden leaks about the widespread extent of government surveillance continue to come. Following on from the Guardian's publication on Thursday of documents showing how the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) allows the National Security Agency (NSA) to obtain data from domestic U.S. communications without a warrant, on Friday the Guardian revealed that the British equivalent of the NSA, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), is collecting and storing "vast quantities of global email messages, Facebook posts, internet histories and calls" and sharing them with the NSA. NSA analysts reportedly "share direct access to the system."
The existence of the GCHQ program is the latest revelation from Snowden's leaks and shines further light on the murky world of government surveillance as part of his attempt to expose what he called "the largest program of suspicionless surveillance in human history." And if the previous revelations about NSA practices were not bad enough, the role of the GCHQ is apparently even bigger than that of the NSA.
On Sunday the Guardian published documents showing that the GCHQ had intercepted the communications of foreign politicians during the 2009 G20 summit in London. Friday's revelation, however, is even bigger. According to the Guardian, the:
"Sheer scale of the agency's ambition is reflected in the titles of its two principal components: Mastering the Internet and Global Telecoms Exploitation, aimed at scooping up as much online and telephone traffic as possible. This is all being carried out without any form of public acknowledgement or debate."
Speaking after the exposure of NSA's PRISM program, to which the GCHQ reportedly has access to, British Prime Minister David Cameron argued that he was "satisfied that we have intelligence agencies that do a fantastic job to keep us safe and operate within the law." Foreign Secretary William Hague labelled claims that the GCHQ uses its relationship with the NSA to get around British law "baseless," and said that law-abiding citizens had "nothing to fear" when it comes to government surveillance. As vague and unreassuring as the British government response was then, in much the same way that the U.S. government's response has been vague and unreassuring, it is even more unreassuring now.
Under operation Tempora, which has been running for 18 months, the GCHQ has been tapping into more than 200 fiber-optic cables, each of which "carries data at a rate of 10 gigabits per second," and was able to "process data from at least 46 of them at a time." That potentially amounts to the ability to monitor as much information as "all the books in the British Library 192 times every 24 hours." Intercept probes were attached to the fibre-optic cables "under secret agreements with commercial companies," some of which may have been paid for their cooperation. GCHQ lawyers even boasted in their legal briefing to the NSA about how Britain has a "light oversight regime compared with the US."
Through the program, the:
"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."
As a slide from a top secret briefing to GCHQ intelligence analysts reveals, they were even encouraged to "have fun" spying on people and to "make the most of it."
Image credit: the Guardian
Snowden argues that the issue of rampant, suspicionless government surveillance is "not just a US problem. The UK has a huge dog in this fight. They [GCHQ] are worse than the U.S."
The British government, as the U.S. government has done, will no doubt defend these latest revelations and say that the programme is legal and is helping to prevent legitimate threats. If they are technically legal, however, that is even more of a stinging indictment on how far the law has been corrupted in the name of national security and protecting the public. Legal or not, the scale of this surveillance is shocking and represents a massive erosion of civil liberties. Clearly, "mastering the internet" was not just a clever catchphrase thought up for an engaging slide presentation but an explicit goal.