New Snowden Leaks Reveal Cable Tapping Details

This week the British publication The Register released a report that details the extensive lengths that the GCHQ has gone to in order to maintain complete control over the fiber optic backbones which make international communications possible.

Much of the data about these efforts has been available since the leaks first dropped back in June, however at the request (read: pressure) of the British Parliament, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, and The Washington Post haven’t had the gumption to make the information publicly known.

Located at a base labeled only as “Seeb” on the northern coast of Oman, the network includes three separate stations which all serve a different, but equally disturbing purpose in the surveillance of overseas communications. Dubbed “CIRCUIT”, the Seeb hub is used to tap into the networks of Middle Eastern countries the US and UK deem a threat, including Yemen, Qatar, and Iraq.

The Seeb spy base, as seen by Google Earth. Photo: The Register

Classified at three levels above Top Secret (known within the intelligence community as “Strap 3”), the location and purpose of these bases were only known to a very select group of agents who worked either directly at the site itself, or managed its operations from an office back in the UK.

The Register spends a good chunk of the report covering the companies who help to support these programs, primarily BT and Vodafone, while also bringing a specific focus to the amount of money each were paid with British tax dollars to maintain the taps that make the whole operation possible.

See, instead of employing government contractors or internal agents to maintain these systems, engineers and technicians from within the telecom industry itself are paid handsomely to keep things running smoothly and as out of sight as they know how. It’s this level of deception that the author takes particular offense to, rattling on about how private companies shouldn’t be colluding with public officials as closely and personally as they have over the past several years.

BT even had its very own codename within the memos distributed to employees of the GCHQ, (REMEDY), which was used anytime agents needed to send out a new work order under classified circumstances.

“BT and Vodafone/C&W also operate extensive long distance optical fibre communications networks throughout the UK, installed and paid for by GCHQ, NSA, or by a third and little known UK intelligence support organization called the National Technical Assistance Centre (NTAC).

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.”

Photo: The Register

For much of the time these connections have existed and were actively collecting data on foreign citizens, there weren’t any pieces of legislation which actually allowed them to keep what was being recorded. That all changed in 2009, when the spy agency was able to persuade Foreign Secretary David Miliband into signing off on a warrant which gave them full permission to do just about whatever they wanted with the phone calls, text messages, emails, and internet traffic that was pulled in.

“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.”

All that said, these revelations are about as surprising as the leak earlier this month posted by Wikileaks, who released documents which suggested that the United States had been collecting and analyzing all the data going in and out of the country of Afghanistan for around the same amount of time we’ve been involved in the conflict.

It’s these types of programs that are expected during wartime, a natural progression of the codebreakers who first made famous during World War II when they pulled radio transmissions right out of the air and dedicated millions of dollars to cracking the cyrptography contained within.

This isn’t to suggest that members of the targeted countries have any more or less rights to privacy as someone in the nation who is spying on them, however it’s not exactly shocking to see that these agencies have placed the taps where they have when you consider where allegedly the highest concentration of terrorist groups and their supporters are located.