What is GCHQ?
Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) is one of three British intelligence agencies. Working alongside the Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), GCHQ has two purposes. The first concerns information security and to this end the agency works to protect the integrity of government systems, data and information. This function is performed by the Communications Electronic Security Group (CESG).
The second is much more controversial and involves eavesdropping on electronic communications. This function is known as Signals Intelligence (SIGNET) and the process involves intercepting all manner of communications in order to gather and develop intelligence. It is this second function of GCHQ which has been called into question lately and this has been covered widely in the media. GCHQ is to Britain what the National Security Agency is to the US. Both are heavily engaged in controversial signals intelligence and both are currently having to answer to a lot of questions.
But what exactly does GCHQ do?
Think of GCHQ in its SIGNET role as being like a huge filter. All manner of communications from text messages to Xbox live communications are tapped into and monitored by the organisation. The important bits of information are then filtered out and developed into intelligence.
So what’s all the fuss about?
What is proving controversial is the extent and depth of this eavesdropping and politicians on both sides of the pond are denying any such knowledge of these apparently unsanctioned and highly intrusive surveillance programs. This has been very controversial in the US where citizens rights and liberties are safeguarded by the Constitution. The NSA has shown itself to be completely unaccountable and naturally Americans are not best pleased. Unlike in the UK, the US has a written Constitution which entrenches and safeguards individuals rights and liberties. This is taken very seriously by both the government and citizens alike. Subsequently the NSA has not supposed to be spying on its own citizens indiscriminately and as such is facing a lot of criticism. Unfortunately the NSA has further shown itself to be highly controversial by tapping in to the phones of world leaders. Evidently President Obama himself had been unaware that the NSA had tapped the phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and this clearly caused some embarrassment. In the UK GCHQ are also facing a bit of a grilling, particularly regarding its highly secret surveillance program ‘Tempora’. And no I’m not talking about deep fried prawns!
So what’s all this about finger snacks?
Tempora (not to be confused with the delightful tempura) came to light following revelations made by the disillusioned NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Snowden exposed GCHQ for tapping into the network of fibre optic cables carrying digital traffic around the world. This meant that they had been listening in on private communications including everything from phone calls to Facebook messages. According to the Guardian this sensitive and personal information is stored for up to 30 days where it is sifted through and analysed. Like in the US the legitimacy of this operation is questionable as the Guardian points out ”This is all being carried out without any form of public acknowledgement or debate”. Furthermore, Tempora has been collecting personal information through this process for the past 18 months and GCHQ has been passing this information on to the NSA. They go on to point out that this information includes “recordings of phone calls, the content of email messages, entries on Facebook and the history of any internet user’s access to websites – all of which is deemed legal, even though the warrant system was supposed to limit interception to a specified range of targets”. When you consider this intrusiveness there again arises moral and legal issues which need to be discussed.
Is this legal?
Well this is the million dollar question. GCHQ would argue that they are only interested in specified targets and that particular trigger words alert them to possible lines of intelligence. For example, terrorists and foreign agents who would pose a serious threat to national security would be legitimate surveillance targets and legally they are authorised to carry out warranted surveillance on such targets. In England any covert surveillance is subject to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) and GCHQ is fully accountable to this legislation. Clearly however such widespread and indiscriminate surveillance is going to be difficult to justify and on this basis QCHQ may struggle to justify its actions. Human rights also need to be considered. For example Article 8 of the Human Rights Act (right to respect for your private life, your family life, your home and your correspondence) raises serious issues surrounding breaches in privacy. Again, GCHQ will have to be sure that they are are not in breach of this important legislation and may struggle to do so. It is possible that both GCHQ and the NSA have got around these legal challenges by working together. Of course either agency will not be bound by the others domestic legislation. In essence It appears that GCHQ and the NSA have been spying on each other’s citizens so as to not breach their own domestic privacy laws. Either way both organisations are being held to account and we may see new laws being passed as a result.
Since when did terrorists play video games?
In an apparent attempt to think outside the box and target a new source of intelligence both the NSA and GCHQ have reportedly been targeting online gaming communities. Xbox Live for example has an impressive membership of 48 million users and according to the NSA (reported by the Guardian) could provide a target rich communications network. Moreover “Given that gaming consoles often include voice headsets, video cameras, and other identifiers, the potential for joining together biometric information with activities was also an exciting one”. Bizarrely both agencies are thought to have sent virtual agents into gaming communities (such as that of the virtual World of Warcraft) with the hope of intercepting communications between possible targets and gathering intelligence. It all seems a little far fetched but apparently there is no limit to the levels of surveillance being conducted by both agencies.
Personally I think we need to look at the world in which we live in before we pass too much criticism. It is vitally important that both GCHQ and the NSA stay at the cutting edge of technology so that they can continue to safeguard national security and keep us all safe. After all, the enemies of the state will attempt to use technology to their own advantage and it is as such that our intelligence agencies need to maintain a competitive edge. Whilst we may feel our liberties are being eroded I feel it is important we make these sacrifices for the greater good. If you have nothing to hide then I guess you have nothing to worry about.
For further information regarding GCHQ, the NSA and surveillance check out: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/gchq