The undersea cables that stretch into the UK not only connect the nation with other parts of the world, but also serve other purposes. Media reports suggest that Vodafone-owned cable company helped GCHQ eavesdrop on a large number of Internet users.
News reports based on data leaked by whistleblower and former NSA employee Edward Snowden suggest that the underwater cables are an indispensable part of the mass surveillance program operated by Britain’s spy agency GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters).
Telecommunications firm Cable & Wireless which helps GCHQ to tap into the data sent through these cables is owned and operated by Vodafone which is the third largest mobile phone network provider in the world.
The reports reveal that telecommunication companies in Britain have helped GCHQ collect a significant amount of Internet data from undersea cables.
Between 2007 and 2012, there was a massive increase (7,000-fold) in the quantity of data gathered by GCHQ with its computers eavesdropping on about 46 billion communications every day. The data collected from the cables included content from IM messages, emails, VoIP calls, and browsing sessions.
The reports also reveal that Cable & Wireless had an important role in this cable tapping operation. Communication firms are required to comply with the law and help government spy agencies implement surveillance operations. However, in this particular case, the collaboration between GCHQ and Cable & Wireless seems to have gone much further than that.
Besides helping the agency sweep data from the cables, Cable & Wireless provided GCHQ with regular updates on opportunities to tap into online traffic.
In February 2009, Cable & Wireless even allowed a GCHQ employee to work in a ‘full time project management role’ at their company; and for allowing GCHQ to tap into the cables, the UK government paid the firm over £5m per year. The agency designated the company the code name Gerontic and described it as a ‘partner’.
The reports also claim that Cable & Wireless helped GCHQ collect data from India’s Reliance Communications.
This allowed the agency to sweep up Internet data sent by tens of millions of people around the world through Reliance-owned cables that stretch between England, the Middle East, and Asia. GCHQ named this ‘access point’ Nigella. It is located near the agency’s surveillance camp in Bude, Cornwall.
The documents suggest that the Nigella access point was active at least until April 2013. Reliance Communications refused to comment on the report.
Cable & Wireless was bought by Vodafone in July 2012 for around $1.5 billion. In its statement, Vodafone says that it has a responsibility to comply with the law. However, the company denies giving ‘direct access’ to the cables. The company says that when the government issues warrants, it is forced to provide some access points to the data.
In his statement given to Channel 4 News, Matt Peacock, Vodafone spokesman, said that they were required to follow certain processes, but they were not permitted to talk about them due to legal constraints.
GCHQ refused to comment. The agency simply said that they don’t comment on matters concerning intelligence. The agency also said that all of their work is done within legal and policy frameworks.