British firm now owned by Vodafone aided GCHQ in wiretapping undersea cables

New documents leaked by Snowden reveal the crucial role of a Vodafone-owned company in wiretapping of undersea cables for massive surveillance.

According to several secret documents leaked by Edward Snowden US and British Intelligence wiretap undersea cables used by telecommunication companies as part of their mass surveillance programs.

In June, Snowden released documents that were published by The Register and that reveal the existence of a secret British spy base located at Seeb on the northern coast of Oman, a strategic position that allows the GCHQ to tap several undersea cables passing through the Strait of Hormuz into the Persian/Arabian Gulf.

Other document details the operations conducted in other major spy base located in Bude in Cornwall, in this plant the British intelligence access network feeds Internet data from more than 18 undersea cables coming into different parts of Britain either direct to GCHQ in Cheltenham.


“The majority of large cables come ashore in Cornwall, and have been connected directly to Bude. These include major connections such as FLAG (Fibre optic Link Around the Globe), two of whose cables have been intercepted. Because the FLAG interceptions had to be kept secret from the cables’ owners, one report states, the tapping connections were installed in an undisclosed UK location and “backhauled” to Bude, in the technical language of the communications industry.” States the Register.

Now, according to new reports based on documents leaked by the whistleblower Edward Snowden, the undersea cables have become an integral part of the global mass surveillance system operated by the GCHQ thanks the support provided by a company Cable & Wireless, which was acquired by Vodafone in July 2012 for about $1.5 billion.

The details about the support provided to the massive urveillance were revealed by the British Channel 4 News, the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung,and the German broadcaster WDR, who collaborated with the Intercept. The founding editor Laura Poitras, in fact, obtained a preview of the documents in advance of their publication.

Data provided in the reports are amazing, British telecommunications firms supported GCHQ in collectiong large volume of internet data from undersea cables, the overall amount of information from 2007 to 2012 registered a 7,000-fold increase, meanwhile the spying system monitored nearly 46 billion private communications “events” every day.

The data collected by the undersea cable would include content from online messages, browsing sessions, VOIP calls and emails.

British telecommunications company Cable & Wireless played a crucial role in tapping of the undersea cables, in February 2009 a GCHQ employee was assigned to work within company in a “full-time project management” role to follow the operation from the inside.

The GCHQ paid Cable & Wireless more than £5 million ($9 million) as part of an annual lease for GCHQ to access the undersea cables. In the documents the company is referred as a “partner” codenamed Gerontic.

The documents reveal that the support is also extended into spying operation on a rival foreign communications company:

“According to the reports, Cable & Wireless also appears to have helped GCHQ obtain data from a rival foreign communications company, India’sReliance Communications, enabling the spies to sweep up communications sent by millions of internet users worldwide through a Reliance-owned cable that stretches from England across Asia and the Middle East. This so-called “access point” for GCHQ was named Nigella and located near an agency surveillance base in Bude, Cornwall. Reliance did not respond to a request for comment.” states The Intercept in a blog post.

Despite the Cable & Wireless bought by Vodafone in July 2012 the Nigella surveillance access point remained active as of April 2013.

Vodafone declared that it complies with the law without giving “direct access” to its undersea cables, it has provided data based on warrants issued by the government.

“There are processes for us to do that [comply with warrants] which we’re not allowed to talk about because the law constrains us from revealing these things,” said Vodafone spokesman Matt Peacock in a statement to Channel 4 News. “We don’t go beyond what the law requires.”

GCHQ obviously hasn’t commented the news.

Pierluigi Paganini

November 24, 2014

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