US, UK can access majority of Internet traffic

British and American intelligence agencies have access to 63 underwater cables carrying the vast majority of international Internet traffic, according to a report in German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, or SZ.

Cable & Wireless, a subsidiary of London-based telecom company Vodafone, reportedly helped shape and expand the program that scrapes up troves of Internet traffic data.

Vodafone didn’t deny the relationship, instead saying it has complied with all government laws and lawful government requests.

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The National Security Agency (NSA) has an expansive information sharing agreement with the British intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), meaning it had access to much of the same information.

The details come from newly published documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Laura Poitras, the documentary filmmaker who initially received Snowden’s documents, co-authored the German report.

By 2009, SZ reported GCHQ accessed 70 percent of its total data for this program through cables owned or leased by Cable & Wireless. One full-time GCHQ employee was assigned to manage the agency’s relationship with Cable & Wireless.

When intelligence officials couldn’t gain access to a cable through a partnership with its owner, GCHQ would hack the cable and then funnel the data back through a Cable & Wireless cable to a GCHQ data center.

For its efforts, Cable & Wireless received millions of pounds, according to the documents. Vodafone said it does not “make a profit from law enforcement assistance.”

Previously published Snowden documents revealed the general existence of efforts to tap into Internet cables.

Two NSA programs, Turbulence and Xkeyscore, were designed to search through Internet traffic. Another NSA program, Muscular, tapped into the cables connecting Yahoo and Google data centers.

But the documents revealed Tuesday give the most robust picture yet of the amount of international Internet surveillance the U.S. and UK spy agencies conduct.

The NSA’s overseas collection of Internet activity has not been as controversial in the U.S. as the agency’s bulk collection of Americans' phone records.

A federal privacy watchdog recommended abandoning the phone record program, calling it illegal and a threat to civil liberties. Months later that same watchdog, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, largely gave its stamp of approval to overseas Internet data collection, describing it as legal and valuable to counter-terrorism efforts.

The only NSA reform bill to come close to passage would have only ended the phone record program, not the Internet data collection. That bill died last week in the Senate.