MUNICH — British officials have access to a 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 American whistleblower Edward Snowden, according to a new report in the German press.
The British Government Communications Headquarters, equivalent to the National Security Agency where Mr. Snowden once worked as a contractor, can listen to phone calls, read emails and text messages, and see which websites Internet users from all around the world are visiting, the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and public broadcaster Norddeutscher Rundfunk are reporting.
The 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, texts and Internet activity. Previously, access to only one of the cables had been reported.
The Snowden files suggest that six multinational companies, all of which are based in Britain or America, gave the GCHQ access to these cables in return for money, but it is also believed they were given no choice in the matter. The data originate from an internal GCHQ communication system called GC-Wiki.
The telecommunications companies that participated in this program include four British companies — British Telecommunications (BT), Vodafone, Viatel, and Interoute — and two American companies — Verizon and Level 3 Communications. The German press account was based on reporting by Frederik Obermaier, John Goetz, Hans Leyendecker and Oliver Hollenstein.
Verizon was previously linked to a similar program in the United States, where it provided the NSA access to Americans’ communications.
British Telecommunications also helped the GCHQ program the surveillance software, directly developing hardware for Britain’s Secret Service to monitor Internet data.
A spokesperson for the company told the German media, “Questions of national security should be asked to the concerned governments, not the companies of telecommunications.”
There are more than 200 fiber optic cables that travel around the world. The British GCHQ has access to at least 14 of them, all of which flow through Europe, meaning they can intercept most messages in countries like Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom, among others. Five of these cables also flow through the United States, though this is less significant because the British have a pre-existing agreement with the NSA to exchange information. Other cables flow through parts of Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australia.
“We already investigated if there is a legal basis to ask other providers for information about their cooperation with British security authorities,” a spokesperson for Deutsche Telekom said.