PRISM, meet Tempora: the British spy agency’s program to capture calls, Facebook messages, emails, and more

by John Koetsier, courtesy VentureBeat
Why go to Internet companies like Facebook,  Google, and Yahoo for their data if you can just intercept it on the  world’s network of fiber-optic cables?

That, apparently, is what British spy agency GCHQ is doing, according to new  revelations from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. According to documents revealed by Snowden to the Guardian, GCHQ has tapped 200 of  the world’s fibre optic cables, is surveilling more than 600 million “telephone  events” a day, can intercept emails, check Internet users’ access of websites,  and can see what people are posting on Facebook.

It’s called the Tempora program, and the British agency’s sharing the data  with 850,000 NSA employees and private contractors.

According to the latest revelations, Britain actually has greater  capabilities than the U.S. spy agencies and few legal constraints, making it a  leader among the “five eyes” intelligence community of the U.S., Britain,  Canada, Australia, and New Zealand that is processing more metadata than the  NSA.

Snowden’s documents indicate that GCHQ has built up this capability over five  years by signing secret agreements with data transmission companies to attach  probes to the trans-Atlantic cables where they hit British soil. As is the case  with PRISM in the U.S., the companies are forbidden by law to either decline  to participate or to reveal the spying to their customers or the general  public.

Realistically, much of what GCHQ is reportedly intercepting must be difficult  to understand and use. Internet traffic, of course, can be encrypted, and the  massive flood of data — theoretically up to 21 petabytes a day — would be  impossible to decrypt in any real-world useful time frame.

But much data is sent in the clear, like metadata about who is calling who,  and often web browsing data about what sites you’re visiting. Your Facebook  activity, as well, can be sent unencrypted over ordinary HTTP (hypertext  transfer protocol), although a quick visit to Facebook’s security settings can enable  secure browsing to encrypt your Facebook sessions.

The British spy agency’s legal justification for the Tempora program, like  the NSA’s, lies in an interpretation of law that no one knew at the time would  provide for such wide-scale surveillance. For the NSA, it was the Patriot Act.  In GCHQ’s case, it was the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA),  passed in 2000 … well before big data and massive Internet surveillance became  technically possible.

When asked how many people the Tempora program has targeted, the agency’s  lawyers replied that it would be impossible to say because “this would be an  infinite list which we couldn’t manage.”

In other words, something you’ve done is likely in a British agency’s server  somewhere.

Image credit: Rooner’s Toy Photography/Flickr

Thank you, TiA


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