UK Gov't Tries And Fails To Hide Details Of GHCQ/Telecoms Tapping Fiber Lines

from the it-all-comes-out-eventually dept

Apparently, the UK government worked very hard to get the Guardian and others not to publish certain details about how GCHQ (and NSA) tap certain underwater cables that connect the internet around the globe, as it turns out that they get lots of help from BT and Vodafone Cable (via its purchase of Cable & Wireless). Those two companies apparently get paid handsomely for helping the government tap into these undersea cables. The Register decided it doesn't quite care how much the UK government doesn't want this stuff published, and went ahead and did so anyway:
British national telco BT, referred to within GCHQ and the American NSA under the ultra-classified codename “REMEDY”, and Vodafone Cable (which owns the former Cable & Wireless company, aka “GERONTIC”) are the two top earners of secret GCHQ payments running into tens of millions of pounds annually.

The actual locations of such codenamed “access points” into the worldwide cable backbone are classified 3 levels above Top Secret and labelled “Strap 3”. The true identities of the companies hidden behind codenames such as “REMEDY”, “GERONTIC”, “STREETCAR” or “PINNAGE” are classified one level below this, at “Strap 2”.

After these details were withheld, the government opted not to move against the Guardian newspaper last year for publishing above-top-secret information at the lower level designated “Strap 1”. This included details of the billion-pound interception storage system, Project TEMPORA, which were revealed in 2013 and which have triggered Parliamentary enquiries in Britain and Europe, and cases at the European Court of Human Rights. The Guardian was forced to destroy hard drives of leaked information to prevent political embarrassment over extensive commercial arrangements with these and other telecommunications companies who have secretly agreed to tap their own and their customers’ or partners’ overseas cables for the intelligence agency GCHQ. Intelligence chiefs also wished to conceal the identities of countries helping GCHQ and its US partner the NSA by sharing information or providing facilities.
There are also some details about how the UK government authorized the tapping in secret (of course), and suggests that the powers are exceptionally broad (because, of course they are):
Although GCHQ interception of overseas communications can be authorised by a general “external” tapping warrant, the wording of the law does not permit storage of every communication for examination, as GCHQ wished to do. In 2009, the spooks persuaded then Foreign Secretary David Miliband to sign a new warrant legalising what they wished to do. The terms of such warrants have never been published.

The special “external” warrants, issued under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), authorise the interception of all communications on specified international links. Miliband’s first 2009 warrant for TEMPORA authorised GCHQ to collect information about the “political intentions of foreign powers”, terrorism, proliferation, mercenaries and private military companies, and serious financial fraud.

Certificates attached to external interception warrants are re-issued every six months, and can be changed by ministers at will. GCHQ officials are then free to target anyone who is overseas or communicating from overseas without further checks or controls, if they think they fall within the terms of a current certificate.
The article also details how a special team at BT will help GCHQ figure out how to tap cables without others knowing about them:
The GCHQ-contracted companies also install optical fibre taps or “probes” into equipment belonging to other companies without their knowledge or consent.... Snowden’s leaks reveal that every time GCHQ wanted to tap a new international optical fibre cable, engineers from “REMEDY” (BT) would usually be called in to plan where the taps or “probe” would physically be connected to incoming optical fibre cables, and to agree how much BT should be paid.
Considering that The Register claims that not publishing this information is what kept the UK government from taking The Guardian to court, it will be interesting to see how they react to The Reg's decision to publish. The article also has a lot more details about the GCHQ using a top secret base in Oman to capture all of this undersea cable traffic as well, which I would imagine is a big part of what the government had hoped to keep secret. The stuff about the big telco and cable companies helping tap undersea fiber cables (and getting paid for it) doesn't seem particularly surprising at all. It's been known for years that AT&T has done that for the US government, so it's not clear why anyone felt the need to keep the equivalent so secret in the UK.

Either way, it seems like all of these efforts to keep certain aspects of these stories secret eventually fail. And the "top secret" stuff gets revealed one way or another eventually anyway. That doesn't mean that indiscriminate disclosure necessarily makes sense (though some of you will likely disagree), but it should make people realize that there needs to be very good reasons for keeping certain information secret, or it will almost certainly be disclosed eventually.

Filed Under: fiber, gchq, journalism, nsa, oman, surveillance, tapping, uk, uk government, undersea cables
Companies: bt, the register, vodafone cable

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Jun 2014 @ 11:45am

    Indiscriminate secrecy only bolsters the position of those who advocate indiscriminate disclosure

    By needlessly marking as "secret" material that is publicly known or would reasonably be suspected by the public at large, the government diminishes the perceived value marking material as "secret." The harder they try to keep material needlessly secret, the less likely people will believe them when they insist that certain information really needs to be secret. For example, fifteen years ago, pleading "state secret" / "national security" probably would have persuaded most people that something needed to be confidential. Now, "national security" is so distorted and meaningless that my first thought is usually to translate it to "national embarrassment" and assume that it can be safely disclosed without hurting anyone.

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