British intelligence officials can infiltrate the very cables that transfer information across the internet, as well as monitor users in real time on sites like Facebook without the company's consent, according to documents leaked by Edward Snowden.
The internal documents reveal that British analysts gave instruction to members of the National Security Agency in 2012, showing them how to spy on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in real time and collect the computer addresses of billions of the sites’ uploaders.
The leaked documents are from a GCHQ publication titled ‘Psychology: A New Kind of SIGDEV’ (Signals Development). Published by NBC News on Monday, the papers detail a program dubbed ‘Squeaky Dolphin,’ which was developed for analysts working in “broad real-time monitoring of online activity.”
Sources told NBC that the British have proven their ability to both directly monitor the world’s web traffic cable and use a third party to view the data stream and extract information from it.
Representatives from the companies in question said they have not provided any data to the government of the United Kingdom under this program, either voluntarily or involuntarily. One person who wished to remain anonymous said that Google, the company that owns YouTube, was “shocked” to discover the UK may have been “grabbing” data for years.
Previously published disclosures have made it clear that the US and UK are sharing intelligence tactics. The Washington Post reported in October 2013 that the NSA and GCHQ collaborated on a program known as MUSCULAR, which the agencies used to record “entire data flows” from Yahoo and Google.
Security officials have consistently maintained that the programs are authorized under the laws of their respective nation and that the surveillance is designed only as a tool for preventing terrorism. Still, the lack of transparency has left civil liberties advocates searching for more answers.
“Governments have no business knowing which YouTube videos everyone in the world is watching,” Chris Soghoian, chief technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union, told NBC. “It’s one thing to spy on a particular person who has done something to warrant a government investigation but governments have no business monitoring the Facebook likes or YouTube views of hundreds of millions of people.”
When members of GCHQ delivered the presentation to NSA officials, they showed the Americans how to carry out the surveillance by extracting information from YouTube, Facebook, and Google’s Blogger service on February 13, 2012 - one day before anti-government protests were to begin in Bahrain.
According to the documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, the presenters were careful to mention that the intelligence gathering was not designed to monitor specific targets. “Not interested in individuals just broad trends!” one note reads.
Jason Healey, a former White House official under President George W. Bush, told NBC such activity not only sends a shiver through the public but has also become an impediment for Silicon Valley executives and the thriving social media industry.
“We want our security services to be out there and keeping us safe,” he said, “but we can also look for balance, we can look for limits, especially if we’re putting at risk this most transformative technology since Gutenberg.”