The Brits Are Spying On Us — They’ve Got “More Access” Than NSA

We already knew that the U.S. spy agencies collect all kinds on Americans, thanks to leaked documents from NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Now, in a fresh leak, we’re learning that Brits are snooping on us, too — tapping the world’s telephone and Internet traffic, and sharing that info with the United States. Government Communications Headquarters ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

We already knew that the U.S. spy agencies collect all kinds on Americans, thanks to leaked documents from NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Now, in a fresh leak, we're learning that Brits are snooping on us, too -- tapping the world's telephone and Internet traffic, and sharing that info with the United States.

We already knew that the U.S. spy agencies collect all kinds on Americans, thanks to leaked documents from NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Now, in a fresh leak, we’re learning that Brits are snooping on us, too — tapping the world’s telephone and Internet traffic, and sharing that info with the United States.

Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Britain’s version of the NSA, is allowed to tap more than 200 fiber-optic data cables running through British territory, giving the organization access massive amounts of telephone and Internet data, according to the Guardian, who revealed today that Snowden provided it with a document detailing the UK spy agencies efforts to collect phone and web data.

GCHQ cable taps allow it to gather recordings of phone calls, email content, Facebook entries and any Internet users web browsing history — not exactly the anonymous metadata that we’ve been hearing about on the U.S. side of the Atlantic.

What’s not surprising is that the UK shares this information with NSA. Remember, the two nations have their 70-year old "special relationship" and are the founding members of the Five-Eyes intelligence sharing agreement, formally known as the UKUSA agreement (pronounced you-kooza). The Five-Eyes are members of a special club of former British colonies that gather and share super secret signals intelligence with each other — exactly the type of information gathered by NSA and GCHQ. Australia, Canada and New Zealand are the other three members of this little club that was established by secret treaty during World War II.

How sensitive is the information shared between members? Rumor has it that until 1973, Australian prime ministers weren’t even told about the program.

According to the Guardian, Britain’s ability to tap these fiber-optic cables makes it the web eavesdropping powerhouse of the Five-Eyes, with the documents saying that of the five, Britain has "the biggest Internet access."

UK officials insists that the information is collected legally and hint that analyst access to content of collected communication is extremely limited, with most of what is seen by spies being metadata, the basic information of which telephone and internet users are talking to which, rather than the content of their messages.

British officials boast that GCHQ "produces larger amounts of metadata than NSA." Still, the Guardian reports that British personnel on the team of 300 GCHQ and 250 NSA analysts sifting through the data were told that "we have a light oversight regime compared to the U.S."

(Basically, this is the scenario Georgetown law professor David Cole predicted nine days ago in FP.)

The British paper is reporting that 850,000 NSA and employees and private American contractors had access to the information gathered by CGHQ.

These spies were scooping up 600 million "telephone events" a day and were able to process information from 46 cables at any given moment. One of the documents quotes NSA boss Gen. Keith Alexander as urging British spies to collect everything they could.

"Why can’t we collect at the signals, all the time? Sounds like a good summer homework project for Menwith," reads the top of a slide shown by the Guardian that supposedly quotes Alexander during a 2008 visit to the UK. The slide is titled, "Collect-it-all."

Menwith refers to RAF Menwith Hill, a secret signals intelligence gathering facility in the English countryside (shown above) run by the British and Americans.

Jay Healey, director of the Atlantic Council’s cyber statecraft initiative who served as a U.S. Air Force signals intelligence officer in the 1990s admitted yesterday that electronic spies want to collect as much information as possible.

"The analogy I look at if you’re dealing with intel guys, especially collectors, whether that’s NSA or any other country’s, is that they want to collect — as an analogy — a copy of every book ever written, even if they happen to get U.S. books in there," said Healey during a June 20 event at the Brookings Institution in Washington.  

GCHQ operatives tapped the fibre-optic cables over the last five years at the point where the transatlantic cables reach British shores — these are the cables that move Internet and telephone data from North America to Western Europe.  All of this was done with agreements with the communications companies, described by the document as "intercept partners."

These companies are likely "compelled" to give the British government access to their data via some sort of court order, much as they can be in the United States.

A British source echoed statements by U.S. officials, who described the bulk collection of American’s cellphone call records as an effort to obtain a haystack of information that would facilitate finding the needles of intelligence.

"Essentially we have a process that allows us to select a small number of needles in a haystack," the source told the paper. "We are not looking at every piece of straw. There are certain triggers that allow you to discard or not examine a lot of data so you are just looking at needles. If you have the impression that we are reading millions of emails, we are not. There is no intention in this whole program to use it for UK domestic traffic – British people talking to each other."

Last week, Deputy U.S. Attorney General Robert Cole defended bulk collection of cellphone data and other business records to U.S. lawmakers.

"If you’re looking for a needle in a haystack, you’ve got to get the haystack first," said Cole during a June 18 House intelligence committee hearing on the matter. "That’s why we have the ability under the [FISA] court order, to acquire . . . all of that data, we don’t get to use all of that data, necessarily."

So now the UK spies on the U.S. and the U.S. can spy on the U.K. and both nations can share intelligence with each other. This begs the question; how much does it matter if each country is barred from accessing the contents of its citizens’ communications without a court order?

John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.

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