British Officials Have Far-Reaching Access To Internet And Telephone Communications

By John Goetz, Hans Leyendecker, Frederik Obermaier and Javier Cáceres

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British officials have access to the majority of internet and telephone communications flowing throughout Europe, and in some cases reaching to the United States and other parts of the world, according to new documents from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), equivalent to the National Security Agency, can listen to phone calls, read emails and text messages, and see which websites internet users from all around the world are visiting, Süddeutsche Zeitung and the public broadcaster Norddeutscher Rundfunk have learned.


GCHQ is believed to have pressured a handful of telecommunications and internet companies that operate all around the world to give them access to at least 14 fiber optic cables that are used to transport the public’s calls and messages. Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) had already revealed in late June that the British had access to the cable TAT-14, which connects Germany with the USA, UK, Denmark, France and the Netherlands. In addition to TAT-14, the other cables that GCHQ has access to include Atlantic Crossing 1, Circe North, Circe South, Flag Atlantic-1, Flag Europa-Asia, SeaMeWe-3 and SeaMeWe-4, Solas, UK France 3, UK Netherlands-14, Ulysses, Yellow and the Pan European Crossing.

The terminal stations of TAT-14, SeaMeWe-3 and AC-1 are located on German ground. Furthermore TAT-14 and SeaMeWe-3 are partially owned by Germany’s Deutsche Telekom, which denied knowledge of or participation in the spying.

The Snowden files reveal that six multinational companies, all of which are based in the United Kingdom or America, allegedly gave the GCHQ access to these cables in return for money, but it is also believed they were forced to do it and had no choice in the matter. The files originate in part from an internal GCHQ communication system called GC-Wiki.

The telecommunications companies that participated in this scheme include four British companies – British Telecommunications (BT), Vodafone, Viatel, and Interoute – and two American companies – Verizon and Level-3. BT also developed the GCHQ’s spying software and hardware to control Internet data. A spokesperson for the company told SZ, “Questions of national security should be asked to the concerned governments, not the companies of telecommunications.”

The new information of the Snowden files shows the huge extent of GCHQ eavesdropping in Europe. After learning about GCHQ’s so called “Tempora”-program, EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding sent a comprehensive questionnaire to the British Foreign Minister William Hague. She wanted to know if the eavesdropping program was limited to individual cases, whether British and EU citizens had the chance to rectify erroneous data, which was the extent of the program. The answer came immediately. The British had declared to spy only for reasons of national security and counter-terrorism, which in turn is a purely national matter that was according to the EU-Treaty not the business of the Commission.

If it turns out that the British eavesdropping activities also extended to the “economic interests” of the kingdom, could old demands could get on the table newly - such as an infringement procedure against the UK. Finally the European Court of Justice would have to deal with the case. The court had already once decided, that appealing to matters of national security is not sufficient per se to overturn European fundamental rights.

(Tim Devaney and Oliver Hollenstein contributed translating and editing, photo by Reuters.)