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Operation Tempora, massive tapping program conducted by Britain’s GCHQ

by Pierluigi Paganini on June 23rd, 2013
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Operation Tempora, is the name of GCHQ program to tap fibre-optic cables for secret access to communications.

Operation Tempora, this is the name of last massive tapping program conducted by Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and revealed by The Guardian.

Operation Tempora has been going on for at least 18 months, British intelligence adopted “intercept probes” to intercept huge volume of data from transatlantic fiber-optic cables

“The GCHQ mass tapping operation has been built up over five years by attaching intercept probes to transatlantic fibre-optic cables where they land on British shores carrying data to western Europe from telephone exchanges and internet servers in north America.”

Once again the news has revealed an uncomfortable truth, spying activities and communication monitoring are a common practice for any government that ignore the user’s privacy in the name of security.

British intelligence gathered in this mode an enormous quantity of data including email messages, Facebook posts, internet histories and calls, but reality is more disturbing if confirmed by the revelation of Edward Snowden that sustains that British authorities share this information with the NSA.

“For the 2 billion users of the world wide web, Tempora represents a window on to their everyday lives, sucking up every form of communication from the fiber-optic cables that ring the world,” the Guardian noted.

For the analysis of a so great amount of traffic and data mining of its informative content the GCHQ has a complex set of filters, for example there are able to exclude low-value traffic such as peer-to-peer downloads a measure that allows the analyst to reduce the overall traffic volumes by up to 30%.

Operation Tempora

The Guardian revealed that GCHQ has established a surveillance machine that is efficient at least such as the US one, the NSA uses a total of 31,000 specific search terms to use for monitoring purpose, including specific phone numbers, email addresses and other identifiers to keep an eye on communications being carried out by persons or entities of interest, the GCHQ agency uses about 40,000 of similar terms for filtering.

“UK officials could also claim GCHQ “produces larger amounts of metadata than NSA”. (Metadata describes basic information on who has been contacting whom, without detailing the content.)”  The guardian states.

According Edward Snowden thanks to Operation Tempora the British secret services intercepts petabytes worth of communication data from fiber-optic cables every day, they include commercial data obtained with collaboration of private companies.

The Guardian reports that British Government signed a secret agreements with commercial companies, described in one document as “intercept partners”, it paid the corporations for the cost of their cooperation.

“They were assigned “sensitive relationship teams” and staff were urged in one internal guidance paper to disguise the origin of “special source” material in their reports for fear that the role of the companies as intercept partners would cause “high-level political fallout”. Stated the Guardian of the intercept partners.

GCHQ doesn’t reveal the names of the companies involved in the Operation Tempora, but it must be pointed that companies were obliged by law to cooperate with the GCHQ.

The Guardian revealed that on May 2012 300 analysts from the GCHQ and 250 from the NSA worked to analyze the collected data searching for information on possible terrorist threats and track of other criminal activity.

Prism isn’t the unique surveillance program, principal movement in defense of human rights and freedom of expression are concerned about the nature and scope of the surveillance programs, another element of concern is represented by the possibility that group of state-sponsored hackers could access to these enormous amount of information with serious consequences.

The Guardian reported that GHCQ is investing to expand its data interception capabilities, during the past five years they spent a great effort that led it to handle 600 million telephone “events” a day and to process data from at least 46 of the more than 200, 10Gbps fiber-optic cables on which it placed intercepts. These figures were related to the activities conducted last year and give an idea of the efficiency of programs such as the Operation Tempora.

UK Government, exactly as any other government sustains that thanks to the intense activity of tapping it gathered information of interest that has apparently allowed the agency to identify terrorist threats and other cyber threats.

Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs – Operation Tempora, Surveillance)

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