British spy agency said to tap world's phone calls, e-mails

GCHQ secretly gained access to fiber-optic cables that carry the world's phone calls and Internet activity, reports the Guardian, and it's sharing the data with the NSA.

Carrie Mihalcik Former Managing Editor / News
Carrie was a managing editor at CNET focused on breaking and trending news. She'd been reporting and editing for more than a decade, including at the National Journal and Current TV.
Expertise Breaking News, Technology Credentials
  • Carrie has lived on both coasts and can definitively say that Chesapeake Bay blue crabs are the best.
Carrie Mihalcik
2 min read
GCHQ's headquarters in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. GCHQ

Accusations of broad government surveillance have traveled across the pond. Britain's intelligence agency has reportedly been collecting and storing vast amounts of data from the world's telephone calls and Internet traffic -- and sharing that information with the National Security Agency.

Britain's Government Communications Headquarters secretly gained access to fiber-optic cables that carry the world's communications, reports the Guardian. The GCHQ taps into huge amounts of data from these cables and stores it for up to 30 days to be looked over by analysts from GCHQ and the NSA.

The Guardian reported Friday that documents shown to them by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the secret operation, code-named Tempora. It gives the GCHQ and the NSA access to "recordings of phone calls, the content of email messages, entries on Facebook and the history of any internet user's access to websites."

"It's not just a U.S. problem. The U.K. has a huge dog in this fight," said Snowden, according to the Guardian. "They [GCHQ] are worse than the U.S."

The GCHQ has been carrying out the operation, without warrants or "any form of public acknowledgement or debate," for nearly 18 months, according to the report.

The Guardian also cites a source "with knowledge of intelligence" who argues that the information was collected legally and under a system of safeguards. This source also told the Guardian that the information collected "had led to significant breakthroughs in detecting and preventing serious crime."

The leaked documents reportedly show that by 2012 the GCHQ was handling 600 million "telephone events" every day and had tapped more than 200 fiber-optic cables. The GCHQ continues to tap more lines and expand data facilities in the U.K. and around the world with the aim of processing terabits of data at a time, reports the Guardian.

Concerns over the U.S. government's domestic surveillance erupted earlier in June after Snowden leaked documents about PRISM and the 2015 Program, two NSA programs that collect information from phone service providers and Internet companies.

The White House continues to insist that these secret surveillance programs are legal and are being used to track down terrorists, not spy on Americans.

But Snowden claimed Monday, in an online chat organized by the Guardian, that "Americans' communications are collected and viewed on a daily basis on the certification of an analyst rather than a warrant."

Several tech companies have tried to put users' privacy concerns to rest by releasing the total number of data requests they receive from the government -- but these totals include NSA, federal, state and local requests. Google has even filed a court request to remove the Justice Department gag order about discussing government data requests.