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Shotgun Scenario for Subsea Operators

Ray Le Maistre

Subsea network operators have had "no choice" as to whether they cooperate in the British intelligence services' Internet traffic-snooping operations, according to a report in The Guardian that cites an anonymous source "with knowledge of intelligence" activities.

The report, the latest in a series of revelations based on data-snooping whistleblower Edward Snowden, details how the U.K.'s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) intelligence operation, known as Tempora, has been using probes to capture Internet traffic from more than 200 subsea networks that land in the U.K., which is the major hub for traffic passing between Europe and North America. (See British Spooks Tap the Global Net.)

The operation has been "mainstream" since late 2011 following a trial at subsea network landing stations located at Bude in the south-west of England.

The source noted that the subsea network operators, which haven't been identified and which are "forbidden from revealing the existence of warrants compelling them to allow GCHQ access to the cables," had no option but to cooperate with the British intelligence services, which shared the data gleaned with the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA).

For clues about which companies might have GCHQ probes hanging off their networks, the TeleGeography Inc. map of submarine cables and their landing points, which can be viewed here, is invaluable.

With the network operators gagged by law, admissions of complicity with the Tempora operation will hardly be forthcoming. BT Group plc, which owns a part share of the Celtic subsea network that connects Ireland and the U.K., and which lands at Sennen Cove at the south-west tip of England, said it couldn't comment on the GCHQ probes issue. Other operators are yet to respond to requests for comment but BT's response is expected to be the norm.

The network operators involved will no doubt be glad of the gagging order that prevents them even from publicly acknowledging any complicity. But what will they be saying to their customers, who should be wanting to know, with some urgency, to what extent their operations have been compromised?

Don't expect any revelations from communications companies affected by the controversy: Customer confidentiality and fear of any loss of business will keep matters under wraps.

— Ray Le Maistre, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading

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