Beyond Echelon: British spies are tapping into global fibre networks

22 Jun 2013

For years we heard tales of Echelon, a system that emerged from the Cold War that allowed British security agencies to monitor phone calls including via satellite systems. But now, according to the latest revelations to come from rogue CIA contractor Edward Snowden, British spies are tapping into fibre optic cables to gather internet histories, Facebook posts and global email messages.

According to new reports an operation code-named Tempora dwarves the Echelon programme and secretly accesses the network of cables which carry the world’s phone calls and internet traffic.

Not only that, according to a report by The Guardian newspaper, Britain’s top spy agency GCHQ is processing the vast streams of data and is sharing it with its US counterpart, the National Security Agency (NSA).

Future Human

The newspaper cites new documents provided by Snowden which claims GCHQ is able to store enormous volumes of data drawn from fibre optic cables for up to 30 days.

Code-named Tempora, the programme has been running for over 18 months and takes in recordings of phone calls, email message content, Facebook messages and any users’ internet history.

Snowden, a former CIA contractor who worked for Booze Allen Hamilton, went rogue and revealed activities of the NSA such as the alleged PRISM programme which monitored the servers of internet giants like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple.

According to the report Snowden has described the GCHQ as “worse than the US” and the Tempora programme as “the largest programme of suspicionless surveillance in human history.”

The documents are believed to claim that GCHQ produces larger amounts of metadata than the NSA and makes the UK a digital superpower amongst the ‘five eyes’ intelligence alliance comprising the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Operationally, some 300 GCHQ analysts and 250 NSA analysts are employed to sift through the data.

More than 200 fibre optic cables traversing the world are understood to have been tapped 46 at a time.

Furthermore, some 850,000 NSA workers and US private contractors with top security clearance can access the GCHQ databases.

Chilling stuff indeed … if you have something to hide.

Scanner eyes image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years