Britain's GCHQ: "Worse Than the NSA"
June 23, 2013 • 11:22AM

The latest revelations from Edward Snowden, as reported in the Guardian, on June 22 suggest that the National Security Agency is not the lead agency in the world when it comes to internet spying, but, in fact, is the junior partner to Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). According to documents reviewed by the Guardian, the GCHQ "has secretly gained access to the network of cables which carry the world's phone calls and internet traffic and has started to process vast streams of sensitive personal information," which it's sharing with the NSA. The documents reveal two programs "Mastering the Internet (MTI), by which the GCHQ aims to capture literally everything that crosses the internet, and "Tempora," by which it stores what it captures in order to sift out the data of intelligence interest. "This is all being carried out without any form of public knowledge or debate," the Guardian notes. "It's not just a US problem. The UK has a huge dog in this fight," Snowden told the Guardian. "They [GCHQ] are worse than the US."

The GCHQ programs depends on probes attached to some 200 trans-Atlantic fiber optic cables that come ashore in Britain. The cables carry traffic from across much of the world that includes every type of internet traffic, including emails and voice telephone calls. The data that's captured is not limited to metadata, but includes content as well. The GCHQ programs began about 6-7 years ago and have progressed to the point where UK officials claim that GCHQ "produces larger amounts of metadata than NSA." By May 2012, 300 analysts from GCHQ and 250 from the NSA has been assigned to sift through the flood of data, which flows through each cable at the rate of 10 gigabits per second. The tapped cables, the Guardian reports, have the capacity, in theory, to deliver 21 petabytes per day equivalent to sending all of the information in all of the books in the British Library 192 times every 24 hours.

This mass of data is processed by a means called "massive volume reduction," or MVR. The first filter in the system immediately rejects high-volume, low value traffic, which reduces the total volume by about 30 percent. Other filters pull out packets of information by "selectors," which are search terms including subjects, phone numbers and email addresses of interest. GCHQ has chosen 40,000 such selectors, and the NSA another 31,000. "Most of the information extracted is 'content,' such as recordings of phone calls or the substance of email messages," says the Guardian. The rest is metadata.

An internal GCHQ memo of October 2011 reveals the objectives of the programs. "Our targets boil down to diplomatic/military/commercial targets/terrorists/organized criminals and e-crime/cyber actors," it says.

One document underlines the close relationship between the NSA and GCHQ. "GCHQ analysts effectively exploit NSA metadata for intelligence production, target development/discovery purposes," its says. "NSA analysts effectively exploit GCHQ metadata for intelligence production, target development/discovery purposes." The two agencies have come to depend on each other. The NSA needs Britain's access to the internet cables as well as Tempora's "buffering capability." At the same time, the NSA has provided the tools to sift through this enormous quantity of data.

The Guardian's GCHQ expose is already causing a political firestorm in Britain and elsewhere. Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander called on the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee to exercise closer oversight of the GCHQ and other intelligence agencies. "These latest reports reinforce the urgency and importance of the ISC's work on this issue," he said. Germany's Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger called the allegations in the Guardian reports a "Hollywood nightmare," and said "If these accusations are correct, this would be a catastrophe." "The accusations make it sound as if George Orwell's surveillance society has become reality in Great Britain," leading German opposition MP Thomas Oppermann was quoted by Reuters as saying. "This is unbearable... the government must clarify these accusations and act against a total surveillance of German citizens." No reaction to the Guardian story has yet been seen from the U.S., but as one observer put it, this morning, the US Congress now has to assume that they're being wiretapped. They've been assured that they aren't, but the GCHQ story is more evidence that those assurances are lies.