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GCHQ tapping into international fibre optic cables, shares intel with NSA

Britain's spy agency, GCHQ, is secretly conducting mass surveillance by tapping fibre optic cables, giving it access to huge amounts of data on both innocent citizens and targeted suspects, according to a report in the Guardian.

Mass, indiscriminate surveillance of this kind goes against an individual's fundamental human right to privacy. The scope and scale of this program, which monitors the entire British public and much of the world, is neither necessary nor proportionate and thus, unjustifiable.

According to the Guardian story, GCHQ and the NSA access and process vast amounts of communications data though the operation, dubbed Tempora, which has been running for at least 18 months. Up until now, the public has not known of the existence of the programme, and operates within an intentionally obfuscated legal framework that the government has consistently refused to provide any clarity on.

The types of communications access through Tempora, according to the report, include:

  • recordings of phone calls
  • content of email messages
  • entries on Facebook
  • detailed history of a user's access to websites

Undersea fibre optic cables carry upwards of 99% of intercontinental internet and communications traffic, making this sheer scale of this type of monitoring incredibly invasive to the privacy of the nearly 2 billion internet users around the world.

There has been speculation for over a decade that governments have been intercepting content transmitted via undersea fibre optic cables. And US-based company Glimmerglass Networks has stated in Aviation Week that its technology is “involved in the collection of intelligence from […] undersea fibre systems.” . Another company, ETI Group, “provides tools matching interception requirements, ranging from passive monitoring of a simple twisted pair, to high bandwidth optical fibre connections, used in high-speed access lines, international gateways, and sea cables” (emphasis added) .

There are great concerns about the impacts that the surveillance of communications over undersea cables may have upon the human rights of individuals around the world. The governments spying program would not have been possible without the collaboration of the undersea cable operations. While gagging orders are often commonplace, the operators of undersea cables (described in the Guardian as "intercept partners") should also respect fundamental human rights and stand up against mass surveillance.

The Second Principle of the United Nations Global Compact states that businesses should ensure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses. And the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (“the Ruggie Principles”) stipulate that companies must avoid contributing to human rights abuses and address adverse human rights impacts where they do occur. 

While the United Nations recognises each country's right to intercept telecommunications and conduct surveillance in accordance with national laws in a proportionate manner, it also expects both states and private companies to protect and respect human rights.

Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression explained in a recent report that “by placing taps on the fibre optic cables, through which the majority of digital communication information flows, and applying word, voice and speech recognition, States can achieve almost complete control of tele- and online communications.”  La Rue states this kind of “[m]ass interception technology eradicates any considerations of proportionality, enabling indiscriminate surveillance. It enables the State to copy and monitor every single act of communication in a particular country or area, without gaining authorisation for each individual case of interception.”

According to the Guardian, NSA head Gen. Keith Alexander in 2008 is reported to have asked intelligence officials in the UK, "Why can't we collect all the signals all the time?" It appears as if GCHQ is doing just that. Despite reassurances from Foreign Secretary William Hague that GCHQ operates within a strong framework of democratic accountability and oversight, the Guardian reports intelligence officer are instructed it's their call whether their snooping meets the strict legal requirements of necessity and proportionality.

Government must reform how our intelligence agencies are governed. Legal frameworks detailing how powers are used must be published and the never-ending justification of abuse in the name of national security must stop -- putting an end once and for all to the insufficient oversight of the executive’s exercise of surveillance powers.

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