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How does GCHQ’s internet surveillance work? – Guardian


Learn more about the system for collecting content and metadata, and what GCHQ can do with it

n essence, an internet buffer is a little like Sky+, but on an almost unimaginably large scale. GCHQ, assisted by the NSA, intercepts and collects a large fraction of internet traffic coming into and out of the UK. This is then filtered to get rid of uninteresting content, and what remains is stored for a period of time – three days for content and 30 days for metadata.

The result is that GCHQ and NSA analysts have a vast pool of material to look back on if they are not watching a particular person in real time – just as you can use TV catch-up services to miss a programme you hadn’t heard about.

How is it done?

GCHQ appears to have intercepts placed on most of the fibre-optic communications cables in and out of the country. This seems to involve some degree of co-operation – voluntary or otherwise – from companies operating either the cables or the stations at which they come into the country.

These agreements, and the exact identities of the companies that have signed up, are regarded as extremely sensitive, and classified as top secret. Staff are instructed to be very careful about sharing information that could reveal which companies are “special source” providers, for fear of “high-level political fallout”. In one document, the companies are described as “intercept partners”.

How does it operate?

The system seems to operate by allowing GCHQ to survey internet traffic flowing through different cables at regular intervals, and then automatically detecting which are most interesting, and harvesting the information from those.

The documents suggest GCHQ was able to survey about 1,500 of the 1,600 or so high-capacity cables in and out of the UK at any one time, and aspired to harvest information from 400 or so at once – a quarter of all traffic.

As of last year, the agency had gone halfway, attaching probes to 200 fibre-optic cables, each with a capacity of 10 gigabits per second. In theory, that gave GCHQ access to a flow of 21.6 petabytes in a day, equivalent to 192 times the British Library’s entire book collection.

GCHQ documents say efforts are made to automatically filter out UK-to-UK communications, but it is unclear how this would be defined, or whether it would even be possible in many cases.

For example, an email sent using Gmail or Yahoo from one UK citizen to another would be very likely to travel through servers outside the UK. Distinguishing these from communications between people in the UK and outside would be a difficult task.

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