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GCHQ, Tempora and Global Surveillance


The relationship between Britain (or the UK, if you wish to be properly official) and the United States has always been peculiar. Accents are mocked, styles of language derided and the occasional library burned (oh, to remember 1812 again). The older party is often treated as the superior party, that is, if you are the older party wishing to be in the good books. The future Prime Minister of Britain, Harold Macmillan made it clear as a soldier in the African campaigns of the Second World War: We shall be the new Greeks to the succeeding Romans, Britain’s wise counsel to America’s brash and vulgar empire.

If you imagine a brother wanting to burn your house and write a sweet obituary, you might get a relationship of sorts between the intelligence communities of the respective powers. They may not necessarily like each other, but romance can be a disease of convenience.

Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Britain’s equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), has been doing rather well for itself and its cousins across the Atlantic. The trains may not run on time in the land of Pimms and cricket, transport might cost the earth, as do many services. But when it comes to suspicion, this organisation does it better than most, assuming that any view point expressed through fibre optic cable is worth noting. As far as information is concerned, it is a vacuum service, hoovering up for its masters with an efficient disposition.

As John Koetsier explains in Venture Beat (Jun 21), “Why go to Internet companies like Facebook, Google and Yahoo for their data if you can just intercept it on the world’s network of fibre-optic cables?” GCHQ, according to Edward Snowden’s disclosures, has tapped 200 such cables, effectively monitoring 600 million “telephone events” a day. It can also intercept Internet users’ access to websites, what is being posted on Facebook, and intercept emails.

As always, the British prefer the names of classics, suggestion and allusion when it comes to wars of code and operations. In a true sense of fashion, if you like musty shelves and wooden desks, it is called Tempora. What is even more disturbing about the Tempora program is that it has even less restrictions than those governing the NSA PRISM program. There is even the suggestion that the GCHQ program might be more effective in gathering metadata than PRISM.

This form of circumvention has been sometime in the making. Over the course of five years, GCHQ has been making agreements with data transmission companies allowing the attachment of probes to trans-Atlantic cables that touch British soil. These companies are forbidden to disclose the very fact that they are participants in the surveillance program.

Much of this is based on a very wide reading of the powers granted by the Regulation and Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which was passed in 2000. Where there is a law, there is a will. And there is no equivalent of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to cast a keen judicial eye on the process. As one of GCHQ’s senior legal advisors told The Guardian in a confidential briefing, “We have a light oversight regime compared with the U.S.” Troubling yet hardly surprising.

The Tempora program is also a work in progress. The first part is dubbed “Mastering the Internet”, the second “Global Telecoms Exploitation”. The language of the program says it all: internet imperialism as an experiment, the attempt to control the seemingly uncontrollable. When fully established, the program will be able to pull data from over 90 percent of cables with routes through Britain (Atlantic Wire, Jun 21).

Naturally much of this data might be encrypted. Furthermore, we live in an age of surfeit of information, a sphere populated by asphyxiating infoglut. There is simply too much, much of it nonsense, much of it irrelevant. The flow of 21.6 petabytes a day is the equivalent to 192 times the British Library’s entire book collection.

But the very fact that such a massive surveillance system exists, transcending legal institutions, is highly problematic for any power professing to believe in them. The British intelligence establishment has effectively issued writs against freedom. Apart from The Guardian’s efforts, many in the British press have been slow to act on the revelations. Liberties are bound to be lost when a populace is desensitised to their worth.

These are the times, these are the curses. Germany’s Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger has gone as far as to call Project Tempora a “Hollywood-style nightmare” (Der Spiegel, Jun 22). It will be up to us to change the nature of that, to combat establishment paranoia and redraft the script.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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