Britain’s electronic eavesdropping agency has gained secret access to fibre-optic cables carrying global internet traffic and telephone calls, rogue US intelligence technician Ed Snowden has told The Guardian.
Citing documents disclosed by Snowden, the newspaper said on Saturday that Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) has started processing vast amounts of personal information and is sharing it with its US partner the National Security Agency (NSA).
US authorities have filed espionage charges against the 30-year-old and have asked Hong Kong - where he has fled to - to detain him, a US official told AFP on Friday.
Confirming a report in The Washington Post newspaper, the official said a sealed criminal complaint has been lodged with a federal court in the US state of Virginia and a provisional arrest warrant has been issued.
GCHQ can tap into and store data from cables for up to 30 days so it can be analysed under an operation codenamed Tempora, The Guardian reported.
“It’s not just a US problem. The UK has a huge dog in this fight,” Snowden told the paper.
“They (GCHQ) are worse than the US.”
The Guardian claimed Tempora had been running for 18 months and GCHQ and the NSA were able to access vast quantities of communications between entirely innocent people.
They can also target suspects, including their phone calls, email message content, Facebook entries and internet browsing history, the report said.
It also claimed that the intelligence-gathering directly led to the arrest and jailing of a British terror cell, the arrests of others planning acts of terror, and three London-based people planning attacks prior to the city’s last year Olympic Games.
The Guardian said the documents it had seen showed that by last year, GCHQ was handling 600 million “telephone events” each day, had tapped more than 200 fibre-optic cables and was able to process data from at least 46 of them at a time.
The two main components of GCHQ’s surveillance programme are called “Mastering the Internet” and “Global Telecoms Exploitation”, the daily said, adding that the operations were all being carried out “without any form of public acknowledgement or debate”.
In its editorial, the left-leaning newspaper asked whether lawmakers understood that legislation designed for “an era of crocodile clips” was being stretched to cope with legions of analysts with the world “litreally at their fingertips”.
“We are creating a system of total surveillance which could, indeed, bring great benefits in terms of security, but which, in the wrong hands, could severely curtail protest, reporting, privacy and hard-won freedoms of association and speech,” it said.
Nick Pickes, the director of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: “This appears to be dangerously close to, if not exactly, the centralised database of all our internet communications, including some content, that successive governments have ruled out and parliament has never legislated for.
“If GCHQ have been intercepting huge numbers of innocent people’s communications as part of a massive sweeping exercise, then I struggle to see how that squares with a process that requires a warrant for each individual intercept. This question must be urgently addressed in parliament.
“We need a wholesale review of surveillance law, including the fact that there is absolutely no judicial process within the current system.”
A GCHQ spokeswoman said: “We do not comment on intelligence matters. Our intelligence agencies continue to adhere to a rigorous legal compliance regime.
“GCHQ are scrupulous in their legal compliance.”