Guardian: British intel also snooping on Internet content

posted at 5:31 pm on June 22, 2013 by Ed Morrissey

A couple of weeks ago, the British government found itself under considerable fire at home for their connection to the NSA’s PRISM program.  A number of MPs demanded answers from David Cameron’s Tory government about whether British intelligence was bypassing UK law in order to spy on its subjects by having the NSA collect the data from their Internet for them.  At the time, I wondered whether the Brits were doing the same for the NSA on their own, comparing it to the Hitchcock thriller Strangers on a Train, with its famous “criss cross” murder plot (or the more humorous version in Throw Momma From the Train).

Criss … meet cross:

Britain’s spy agency 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 is sharing with its American partner, the National Security Agency (NSA).

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.

One key innovation has been GCHQ’s ability to tap into and store huge volumes of data drawn from fibre-optic cables for up to 30 days so that it can be sifted and analysed. That operation, codenamed Tempora, has been running for some 18 months.

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.

The NSA isn’t just a passive beneficiary of the MTI and GTE programs, either.  Hundreds of NSA analysts had been assigned to the work along with GCHQ analysts, with seemingly few limitations on what they could access:

By May last year 300 analysts from GCHQ, and 250 from the NSA, had been assigned to sift through the flood of data.

The Americans were given guidelines for its use, but were told in legal briefings by GCHQ lawyers: “We have a light oversight regime compared with the US”.

When it came to judging the necessity and proportionality of what they were allowed to look for, would-be American users were told it was “your call”.

Interestingly, the program disregarded P2P downloads, even though one might presume that this would be a potential method to use for illicit communication over the open-source Internet.  That allowed GCHQ to reduce its storage requirements by 30% while analysts focused on “selectors” such as words and phrases in e-mail, phone numbers, and other content — which included recordings of phone calls.  The result is that the NSA and the GCHQ both have capabilities to go after content on a wide scale while being able to specifically deny spying on their own citizens within their own programs.

Now, did either or both agencies break the laws in their own country in their cooperation with the parallel programs in the other?  Did the two intel communities do the kind of spying for each other that each are barred from conducting themselves in their respective countries?  Perhaps not, and the Guardian story doesn’t give enough specifics to reach a conclusion on that question.  However, Congress and Parliament might want to start asking those questions.


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Snooping in Britain? The land of a billion surveillance cameras everywhere that never stopped one crime (and hardly help after-the-fact, either)? Say it isn’t so.

Brits love to have their royal government spy on them and do whatever it wants. It’s how they are.

ThePrimordialOrderedPair on June 22, 2013 at 5:38 PM

Snooping in Britain? The land of a billion surveillance cameras everywhere that never stopped one crime (and hardly help after-the-fact, either)? Say it isn’t so.

Brits love to have their royal government spy on them and do whatever it wants. It’s how they are.

ThePrimordialOrderedPair on June 22, 2013 at 5:38 PM

And according to some here, we should be the exact same way…and anyone who thinks otherwise is a traitor.

MadisonConservative on June 22, 2013 at 5:40 PM

Every one…
Everywhere…
Are potential traitors….

Until proven otherwise…

“NSA hearts you…
Once you’ve been cleared…”

Electrongod on June 22, 2013 at 5:46 PM

Britain’s spy agency 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 is sharing with its American partner, the National Security Agency (NSA).

The KGB and the Gestapo are green with envy.

VorDaj on June 22, 2013 at 5:48 PM

The NSA is a criminal organization at war with the American People. These @astards should all be in prison at hard labor for life. If a ‘unfriendly power’ were doing this to the American people it would rightly be considered an act of war.

VorDaj on June 22, 2013 at 5:51 PM

Obama and his NSA/Stasi should be tried for espionage against the People of America.

VorDaj on June 22, 2013 at 5:54 PM

Gen. Keith “Peeping Tom” Alexander, Chief of the NSA, is a traitor. He swore an oath to uphold and defend the United States Constitution, but when he testified before Congress on June 18,. Gen. Keith “Peeping Ton” Alexander stomped on and shredded the United States Constitution and then lied to the U.S. Congress and the public about it..

If there were justice in the world, Snowden would be made the head of the NSA with the task of dismantling it as the East Germans were able to dismantle their counterpart to it, the Stasi, Gen. Keith “Peeping Tom” Alexander would be in Leavenworth at hard labor for life and Herr Barack “Peeper” Hussein Obama would be in hiding somewhere in Kenya.

“Congress, defund the NSA/Stasi crime syndicate and stop their war on the American people and their Bill of Rights!”

VorDaj on June 22, 2013 at 5:57 PM

If a ‘unfriendly power’ were doing this to the American people it would rightly be considered an act of war.

VorDaj on June 22, 2013 at 5:51 PM

The NSA is decidedly unfriendly.

dogsoldier on June 22, 2013 at 5:57 PM

Yes Obama, do tell about the offshore connections that circumvent US data capture laws and how that sits on the balance of Justice, transparency when it is completely unconstitutional and lawless.

Unless, of course, you count the ‘secret laws’ which I imagine go in and out of effect at the beginning and end of every Obama speech so that his words are technically legal at the time he says them, but resume their post lawless state as the people head for their homes.

No, this is not our Father’s America. This is the Founding Father’s worst nightmare.

HopeHeFails on June 22, 2013 at 6:04 PM

The result is that the NSA and the GCHQ both have capabilities to go after content on a wide scale while being able to specifically deny spying on their own citizens within their own programs.

This reminds me of a movie on TV I saw (didn’t watch much of it) where 2 men each wanted to murder his own wife, and switched murders so each man would be able to be far away when his own wife was murdered.

VorDaj on June 22, 2013 at 6:29 PM

We should all post large chunks of the Obamacare bill and all the other trash legislation including the amnesty package with light encryption to totally choke their servers.

dogsoldier on June 22, 2013 at 6:38 PM

The internet is not secure. Every country on the face of the earth that has the means “snoops” internet content.

crosspatch on June 22, 2013 at 6:52 PM

To Hades with Facebook. Boycott!!!

Schadenfreude on June 22, 2013 at 6:56 PM

The internet is not secure. Every country on the face of the earth that has the means “snoops” internet content.
crosspatch on June 22, 2013 at 6:52 PM

You’d think it was some kind of ground breaking revelation around here.

Sheltered outrage does have a sort or adorable qualities to it on occasion, I suppose.

I’m not sure what else people really expect.

Genuine on June 22, 2013 at 7:09 PM

To Hades with Facebook. Boycott!!!

Schadenfreude on June 22, 2013 at 6:56 PM

Haha, only about 5 years behind there, Schad. ;)

Genuine on June 22, 2013 at 7:10 PM

What do you expect?

Bmore on June 22, 2013 at 7:14 PM

Governments, via their secret snooping, know business news and information before the world knows it….how many many people in the government are making money off that information?…i.e. stock trading…

No politicians secrets or private discussions are safe from the party in power that controls the NSA.

How much secret information about the Romney campaign did the Obama campaign know via the NSA???

albill on June 22, 2013 at 7:18 PM

What do you expect?

Bmore on June 22, 2013 at 7:14 PM

Fourth amendment rights. Crazy, I know.

MadisonConservative on June 22, 2013 at 7:35 PM

This is all being carried out without any form of public acknowledgement or debate

…well!…there’s one thing JugEars can agree with the Brits on!

KOOLAID2 on June 22, 2013 at 7:36 PM

…across the pondbacks!

KOOLAID2 on June 22, 2013 at 7:37 PM

How much secret information about the Romney campaign did the Obama campaign know via the NSA???

albill on June 22, 2013 at 7:18 PM

Most likely all of it, including donors and operatives, right down to email lists, texts, and phonecalls.

It explains the difference between the 2010 midterms and the 2012 debacle.

The administration had real time intelligence on “the enemy” and near instant feedback on their policy positions…..

wytshus on June 22, 2013 at 7:39 PM

…across the pondbacks!

KOOLAID2 on June 22, 2013 at 7:37 PM

HAL has been busy today. Free the Twerp!

The administration had real time intelligence on “the enemy” and near instant feedback on their policy positions…..

wytshus on June 22, 2013 at 7:39 PM

Yes they did and realtime monitoring of credit card transactions and other activity. In effect they had realtime monitoring of Romney’s campaign. Not that they needed it. He was a crappy RINO candidate.

dogsoldier on June 22, 2013 at 7:44 PM

Most likely all of it, including donors and operatives, right down to email lists, texts, and phonecalls.

It explains the difference between the 2010 midterms and the 2012 debacle.

The administration had real time intelligence on “the enemy” and near instant feedback on their policy positions…..

wytshus on June 22, 2013 at 7:39 PM

…you think the folks at Gibson Guitars and other companies being harassed… had time to give donations or their time to political causes?…they were looking out for their own a$$es!

KOOLAID2 on June 22, 2013 at 7:45 PM

K, k, I admit it. Both Uncle Sam and Aunt Elizabeth are watching us. ;-)

tommy71 on June 22, 2013 at 7:51 PM

And in the end we’ll do nothing but BOHICA, eh?

AH_C on June 22, 2013 at 7:58 PM

Of course they are sharing. The rule is we can’t look at Americans on American soil. They can’t look at Brits on British soil. But we can both look at foreigners- and we share information.

To be surprised about this is being naive.

My ex-partner who is pretty much up on this pointed this out a long time ago.

archer52 on June 22, 2013 at 8:12 PM

Haha, only about 5 years behind there, Schad. ;)

Genuine on June 22, 2013 at 7:10 PM

Genuinely naive, nicely put…I never got on it, or any related idiocies. I know how these things work, from the other side.

Tyranny is upon the state and much of the world. Your obama enhanced it drammatically. Be proud.

Schadenfreude on June 22, 2013 at 8:40 PM

Perhaps it would be too naive to expect a rational discussion on this subject without the Black helicopter faction waxing lyrical.
The issue here is protect individual freedom without emasculating those people who have to defend us by fighting a dirty war underground against those who wish to do us harm?
Are HA readers actually suggesting our secret services should only be reactive rather than proactive?
How about some ideas rather than rants?

callingallcomets on June 23, 2013 at 5:52 AM

This is news? Why would anyone be surprised? See this from April of this year.

I swear I remember reading something years ago which informed the Brit public that their emails were monitored.

Anyway, at least the UK government was up front about it.

NavyMustang on June 23, 2013 at 7:44 AM

This is news? Why would anyone be surprised? See this from April of this year.

I swear I remember reading something years ago which informed the Brit public that their emails were monitored.

Anyway, at least the UK government was up front about it.

NavyMustang on June 23, 2013 at 7:44 AM

Whoops! Looks like I got punked…maybe. April fools!

NavyMustang on June 23, 2013 at 7:45 AM

Any nation worth its salt is snooping on internet content.

rbj on June 23, 2013 at 11:43 AM

The Brits have a proud history of spying, but the proud part is about spying on declared enemies and known criminals. The dirty part is spying on everyone else.

Seriously, does anyone think that GCHQ is not holding anything back? Do you think they are going to give their NSA cousins every last piece of intelligence? It’s not exactly an act of war among allies but it could cause a significant rift if it were known that Brits were spying on Americans, in and out of government.

Americans have been conditioned to think it’s OK to spy on (or drone) foreigners. That’s not a constitutional power given to the executive.

All civilized people should want this unwarranted search to be stopped now, here and all allied countries.

virgo on June 23, 2013 at 11:36 PM

Ignoring P2P services?? If I were in the spy business, that would be my FIRST area to sweep. Have you ever tried to download a file from a P2P server without some virus trying to eat your system?

As for the spying on citizenry, I agree with others that the crux of the argument is the jaw-dropping extent unwarranted searches are being used by western governments.

I still believe 99.999% of everything PRISM achieves to prevent terrorism can still be done with selective search warrants and proper training of LEOs. Why destroy what we most cherish for a system that government has already proven it will abuse? IRS anyone?

Turtle317 on June 24, 2013 at 1:36 PM