UK surveillance agency GCHQ is reportedly using telecom companies to gain access to sub-sea data cables in Europe.
The Belgian morning newspaper De Standard claims five of the cables, which resurface at the Belgian coast, are affected, and the data GCHQ gleans from them is then shared with the US National Security Agency.
Required to cooperate
The information comes from Comité I, according to De Standaard — a committee that monitors the intelligence services in Belgium.
A number of telcos are thought to be required to cooperate with GCHQ surveillance programs. In August 2013, German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung revealed the names of seven operators said to have provided British intelligence with direct access to their undersea fibre-optic cables, including big names such as Vodafone and Verizon.
When asked for a comment by the newspaper at the time, Vodafone said: "Media reports on these matters have demonstrated a misunderstanding of the basic facts of European, German, and UK legislation and of the legal obligations set out within every telecommunications operator's license. Vodafone complies with the law in all of our countries of operation."
Under the UK's RIPA act (Regulatory and Investigatory Powers Act), the government does have broad powers to conduct digital surveillance; however, the general belief is that this method of data sharing is way beyond the scope of targeted warrants available under RIPA.
In July last year, Privacy International, a London-based advocacy group, sued the UK government, alleging such mass surveillance programs were forbidden by law.
Mastering the internet
The committee report cited De Standaard mentions that all fibre optic cables that lead to Belgium are operated by one of seven companies.
The tapping of the fibre-optic cables is in line with one of GHCQ's initiatives, known as "mastering the internet" — in other words, maintaining total control over the online landscape.
In 2012, the UK secret service allegedly tapped over 600 million phone calls a day, originating from the more than 200 cables it had access to.