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Brit spy agency nabs personal data via fibre-optic cables

British spy agency GCHQ has been keeping tabs on our web activity and phone calls, according to new documents from a whistleblower.

It's not just American government agencies that are keeping tabs on what Internet users are doing. British spy agency GCHQ is doing the same, the Guardian reports

GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) was previously embroiled in the whole surveillance mess that was Prism, but now we know exactly how it did it. The spies gained access to the network of cables that pipe the world's Internet traffic and phone calls, and shared all this sensitive info with the NSA (National Security Agency) in America.

The operation is named Tempora -- not to be confused with the battered Japanese dish. It's been intercepting phone calls, emails, Facebook entries, and Web browsing histories not only of terror suspects, but of innocent folk like you and me. It's been going on for the last 18 months, with the data stored for up to 30 days.

The programme was revealed in documents NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden disclosed to the Guardian. He described the actions of the NSA -- and with it GCHQ -- as "the largest programme of suspicionless surveillance in human history." He added: "It's not just a US problem. The UK has a huge dog in this fight. They [GCHQ] are worse than the US."

Tempora was initially supposed to be limited to just certain targets, but the net has been widened to include anyone and everyone. According to one source, it's completely legal, despite no public acknowledgement or debate, thanks to a series of safeguards. The source also said Tempora had led to "significant breakthroughs in detecting and preventing serious crime."

"Essentially, we have a process that allows us to select a small number of needles in a haystack," the source explained. "We are not looking at every piece of straw. There are certain triggers that allow you to discard or not examine a lot of data so you are just looking at needles. If you had the impression we are reading millions of emails, we are not.

"The criteria are security, terror, organised crime. And economic well-being. There's an auditing process to go back through the logs and see if it was justified or not. The vast majority of data is discarded without being looked at... we simply don't have the resources."

GCHQ's operation has two key components, and they have suitably bombastic names: Mastering the Internet, and Global Telecoms Exploitation.

According to documents, GCHQ was monitoring 600 million telephone calls a day. It also tapped over 200 fibre-optic cables, and could, in theory, intercept data equivalent to all the books in the British Library 192 times over every 24 hours. That's a lot of cat gifs.

What do you think of the UK's involvement in all this? Are you worried about who's seeing your data? Let me know in the comments, or on our Facebook page.