Twelve years ago, in an almost forgotten report, the European Parliament completed its investigations into a long-suspected Western intelligence partnership dedicated to global signals interception on a vast scale.
Evidence had been taken from spies and politicians, telecommunication experts and journalists. In stark terms the report detailed a decades-old arrangement which had seen the US and the UK at first — later joined by Canada, New Zealand and Australia to make up the so-called “Five Eyes” — collaborating to access satellites, transatlantic fiber optic cables and radio signals on a vast scale.
This secretive (and consistently denied) cooperation was itself the product of a mutual agreement stretching back to World War I, expanded in World War II and finally ratified in 1948 in the so-called “UK-US Agreement.”
The problem for the authors of the Brussels report was that it had based its analysis on scattered clues and inferences: “It is only natural ... that secret services do not disclose details of their work... The existence of such a system thus needs to be proved by gathering as many clues as possible, thereby building up a convincing body of evidence.”
Despite the limitations of such detective work, the parliamentarians came to a deeply troubling conclusion: the “Five Eyes” were accessing the fiber optic cables running under the Atlantic Ocean.
Not only that, the report concluded tentatively, but it was the UK specifically among the five partners — and its Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in particular — which it suspected had been given primary responsibility for intercepting that traffic.
“The practical implication,” the report said, “is that communications can be intercepted at acceptable cost only at the terminals of the underwater cables which land on their territory.”
“Essentially they can only tap incoming or outgoing cable communications. In other words, their access to cable communications in Europe is restricted to the territory of the UK,” it added.
That GCHQ was at the very heart of secret efforts to tap into the Internet and cable-carried telephony was confirmed in the most dramatic terms on Friday last week by the latest batch of documents to be leaked by former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, who is now being sought by the US government for alleged theft and breaches of the US Espionage Act.
Those documents, published by the Guardian, not only describe the UK’s lead role in tapping the cables carrying global Internet traffic — enjoying the “biggest Internet access” of the “Five Eyes” — but its efforts to suck up ever-larger amounts of global data to share with its partners, principally with the US.
From a handful of cables at the beginning, the UK is now able, according to the documents, to access about 200 on a daily basis and store the information contained within for up to 30 days for analysis, including up to 600 million “telephone events” each day.
GCHQ’s own excitement at the scope of its reach is evident in the documents, in which there is an excited reference to an ability to collect “massive amount of data!” and to “producing larger amounts of metadata [the basic information on who has been contacting whom, without detailing the content] than [the] NSA.”
Up to the late 1980s, in excess of 90 percent of all international voice and data traffic, including diplomatic cables, was being carried by satellite and microwave networks. That began to change rapidly in 1988 when AT&T finished laying the first undersea fiber optic cable from New Jersey to the UK.