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UK spy agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) has access to the network of telecoms cables forming the backbone of the internet, allowing it to access vast amounts of web data, it was reported in the latest revelation as to the extent of web spying carried out by the UK government.
Claims published in the Guardian over the weekend, based on documents handed over by whistleblower Edward Snowden, say that GHCQ accesses and stores vast amounts of data on the web traffic that flows in and out of the UK, on a scale far greater than anyone realised.
The report titles, Mastering the Internet and Global Telecoms Exploitation, leave little to the imagination as to the scale of these programmes, and include claims that the GCHQ has tapped over 200 fibre optic cables, with at least 46 fully accessible.
Given the amount of data that flows through such connections, the scale of data collection is likely to be on an unprecedented scale. The operation is codenamed Tempora and has been running for 18 months, the Guardian claimed.
Snowden told the Guardian the scale of the project made the UK “worse than the US” on matters of surveillance. "It's not just a US problem. The UK has a huge dog in this fight," Snowden added.
A spokesman for GCHQ refused to comment on the issue. "It is longstanding practice that we do not comment on intelligence matters,” he said.
However, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), which oversees the role of the intelligence agencies in the UK, said he was expecting a report on the claims "in the next day or two".
"Whenever there are allegations about the intelligence agencies, we seek to find out the actual facts. We have the power to go into all the highly classified material. We don't have to accept what they say, we have the power to go into the raw data," he added, when speaking on the BBC's Today Programme.
Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, said the revelations, if true, were highly worrying as they suggest that legal procedures put in place to protect citizens were being ignored by the UK's spy services.
“Britain has a clear legal process in place to govern the interception of the content of communications, and blanket interception is not a part of that system,” he said.
“If GCHQ have been intercepting huge numbers of innocent people’s communications as part of a massive sweeping exercise then I struggle to see how that squares with a process that requires a warrant for each individual intercept. This question must be urgently addressed in parliament.”
The latest claims from Snowden come as he seeks asylum in Ecuador after the US filed extradition proceedings against him on espionage charges. He is expected to fly from Moscow to Cuba on Monday, before heading to the South American nation.