UK's GCHQ piggybacking on covert NSA Internet Operation Prism

Posted Jun 7, 2013 by Robert Myles
Reports today indicate that the UK's top secret GCHQ intelligence gathering operation was involved in the US' National Security Agency's Operation PRISM, gathering data from users' Internet habits.
Home of UK intelligence gathering  aerial view of Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in C...
Home of UK intelligence gathering, aerial view of Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire
Wikimedia Commons UK Ministry of Defence
The UK’s Guardian newspaper claimed today that it had obtained documents showing that the UK’s top secret intelligence gathering centre, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, has been covertly gathering intelligence from some of the world’s major Internet companies via its counterparts in the United States, the National Security Agency.
The revelation followed hard on the heels of disclosures this week that firstly Verizon, then a clutch of nine Internet companies had entered into ‘partnerships’ allowing the NSA to trawl through user data.
According to The Guardian report, using the US based program called Prism allows GCHQ to circumvent the normal legal safeguards that protect personal data such as email, photos and videos from Internet companies based outside the UK. GCHQ has been able to access the NSA’s PRISM program since at least 2010. Last year alone, the British end of the operation generated 197 intelligence reports.
The documents obtained by The Guardian purport to be dated as recently as April this year. They were prepared for senior analysts working at America's National Security Agency and detail GCHQ’s use of Prism.
Internet users in the UK are just as likely as US citizens to use many of the nine Internet companies mentioned in an earlier report on Digital Journal today with Facebook, Apple, Google and YouTube being household names on this side of the Atlantic.
In a statement released to the Daily Telegraph, a spokesman for GCHQ said, “GCHQ takes its obligations under the law very seriously. Our work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the Secretary of State, the Interception and Intelligence Service Commissioners and the Intelligence and Security Committee.”
The Guardian’s revelations are bound to raise concerns in the UK that the user data of UK based internet users is finding its way into data-mining operations on servers based in a foreign country. Quite apart from individual’s legitimate concerns over personal privacy, it also raises questions concerning the security of any data retained and the implications for identity theft.
There are likely to be political implications too. If the documents obtained by The Guardian are genuine and it can be shown that GCHQ involvement with Prism has been ongoing for two years, it raises questions as to which UK Ministers authorised the joint operation and when. They are likely to face some tough questions from parliament as to why the UK government, without any debate or parliamentary scrutiny, on the face of it, appears to have handed over, carte blanche, personal details of its own citizens to what remains, no matter how special the ‘Special Relationship,’ a foreign power.
But perhaps GCHQ itself faces the toughest questions particularly given the terms of a statement it released in 2009 and reported on BBC News at the time. In the statement, a spokesman for GCHQ said it "only acts when it is necessary" and "does not spy at will." Confusingly, in the light of today's Guardian report, the statement concluded, "GCHQ is not developing technology to enable the monitoring of all internet use and phone calls in Britain, or to target everyone in the UK. Similarly, GCHQ has no ambitions, expectations or plans for a database or databases to store centrally all communications data in Britain. The new technology that GCHQ is developing is designed to work under the existing legal framework."
Citizens’ campaigning group 38 Degrees was quick to post an invitation to users to comment on The Guardian’s GCHQ story on its Facebook page at 4 p.m. London time this afternoon. Three hours later the 38 Degrees invitation had drawn nearly 500 likes and elicited almost 100 comments.