The Snowden Revelations: NSA Eavesdropping is Only Half the Story

July 1, 2013

NSA SpyAs the world watches to see where NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden ultimately seeks refuge, news headlines are filled with the material he has disclosed regarding the massive scope of National Security Agency (NSA) eavesdropping on communications.  It is clear that NSA monitoring programs pose a significant threat to civil liberties.  Perhaps the most troubling part of all this news is that the NSA’s actions constitute only half of the story.

Snowden’s disclosures also described the active role in global communications spying now being played by the British intelligence organization, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).  Essentially, GCHQ is the British equivalent of the NSA, it is the intelligence organizations in England tasked with the mission of conducting signals intelligence.

According to Snowden, GCHQ has been conducting massive collection of communications data.  The GCHQ data collection activities are reportedly even larger than those alleged to be conducted by the NSA.

A key communications gathering program of the NSA is known as, “Prism.”  The GCHQ equivalent of that program is called, “Tempora.”  The Tempora program allegedly includes direct collection, for multiple periods of up to 30 consecutive days, of all communications handled by more than 200 undersea communications cable facilities around the world.

According to Snowden, the Tempora harvesting of communications from undersea cables includes collection of both communications metadata (routing data such as telephone numbers and e-mail addresses) and actual communications message content.  Thus, the GCHQ is apparently collecting telephone conversations, electronic mail messages, web browsing histories, and social media posts as they are routed through undersea cable systems around the globe.

Reports indicate that, because the GCHQ has been given even broader operating authority than the NSA.  GCHQ is collecting a wider range of communication information than the NSA.  In a time of significant budget cuts in England, it is anticipated that GCHQ will see its operating budget increase in order to support the continuation of its extensive communications monitoring programs.

There is a close working relationship between the NSA and GCHQ.  Snowden indicates that the two agencies share their intelligence data extensively.  There are few limits on the ability of the GCHQ to spy on the communications of Americans, and the GCHQ is apparently willing to share the results of that surveillance with its colleagues at the NSA.

In the wake of Snowden’s disclosures, there is likely to be increasing discussion about the appropriate scope of NSA communications surveillance activities.  As that discussion takes place, it is important to recognize the current and ongoing role of the GCHQ.

Even if the UnitedState government chooses to restrict NSA surveillance activities, that alone will not address the privacy and civil liberties concerns now being expressed.  If the GCHQ continues to have broad authority to monitor and record global communications, and it routinely shares that data with the NSA, tighter controls on NSA spying operations will not necessarily reduce the surveillance threat for American citizens.

It is important that an active debate over the appropriate role of communications surveillance take place in the United States immediately.  That debate should also take place in other nations around the world, including the United Kingdom.  The global nature of today’s communications systems means that one country acting alone can not effectively implement all of the constraints on communications surveillance necessary to protect the civil liberties of its citizens.