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10th Dec 2022

EU asks for answers on UK snooping programme

European Commission vice-president Viviane Reding has asked UK foreign minister William Hague for details of London's secret snooping programme Tempora by the end of the week.

“I have sent a letter to the secretary of state of foreign affairs, William Hague, to express my concern about the recent media reports and ask very clear clarifications regarding the Tempora programme,” Reding told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday (26 June).

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  • Reding wants answers over the respective US and UK snooping programmes (Photo: Kevo89)

Run by the UK intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Tempora reportedly taps directly into dozens of undersea transatlantic cables, which carry telecommunications and Internet traffic.

The snooping operation is indiscriminate and sweeps up masses of data, which is then stored for 30-day periods for processing and analysis.

The tapped cables each carry up to around 20 petabytes of data. It would take 13 years non-stop to watch one petabyte of high definition films.

The letter asks if Tempora is restricted to national security, if snooping is limited to individual cases or is in bulk, if the data is shared with third countries like the United States, and if UK and EU citizens have any legal recourse when it comes to their data.

“I have asked for a very urgent reply by the end of this week,” she said.

Hague, for his part, has defended GCHQ’s surveillance activities and said they operate under strict and lawful guidelines.

But Hague’s defence has not prevented the growing anger, particularly in Germany, where government surveillance is a sensitive issue given the country's past history with the east German secret police, the Stasi.

German justice minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger over the weekend said if the Tempora proved to be true it would “a Hollywood nightmare."

On Tuesday, she sent a letter each to the British home secretary, Theresa May, and justice secretary, Chris Grayling.

The letters ask whether German citizens have been targeted and if the programme has had any judicial oversight.

Sweden snoops fibre optic cables

But the UK is not alone in its push for greater surveillance powers.

The Swedish Defence Radio Authority - the FRA - has been accessing international traffic crossing through its borders without warrant for the past five years.

Alarmed by FRA’s scope, Swedish-Finnish telecom operator TeliaSonera moved its email servers out of the country out of fear of losing its Finnish clientale.

An FRA spokesperson told this website it can only collect information as allowed by the Swedish Foreign Intelligence Court.

The court determines whether the requested collection is relevant, proportional and compatible with specific intelligence requirements provided by specific Swedish government agencies.

“When it comes to collection in fiberoptical cables crossing the Swedish border, FRA can only collect traffic on such fibers which are covered by the permits from the court,” the FRA spokesperson told this website in an email.

While the FRA does not directly tap into the fibre optic cables, it does share data with other countries. The FRA spokesperson declined to say which countries or provide any details on the types of data shared.

The Swedish model has inspired its nordic neighbour Finland.

A 19-page brochure by the Finnish intelligence service states that problems should be identified before they become causes and motives for violence.

The task falls on the shoulders of some 220 analysts hidden away behind glowing monitors in a quaint Helsinki suburb under the direction of 48-year old Antti Pelttari.

Pelttari told a business journal in the wake of the US-led Prism scandal that he wants access to all telephone calls and Internet traffic.

He argued that Finland should adopt the Swedish model.

“The details regarding the means must be considered. But we are talking about the entire society's ability to protect itself,” he was quoted as saying in the Finnish newspaper Talouselama.

Similar moves are being made elsewhere in Europe.

Last year, the Dutch minister of justice announced plans to allow police to hack into computers and install malware.

Police already had such access when tackling child pornography. But the October plan was to expand the scope of the power to include other criminal offences.

The Netherlands is set to revise the Intelligence Act this year that would allow for the unlimited interception of Internet traffic.

Some Dutch MPs are now questioning the proposal after it was revealed their intelligence agency colluded with the NSA on Prism without their knowledge.

“The questions indicate that the Dutch government is tendering for tools that would make such massive surveillance possible,” said Simone Halink of the Dutch digital rights group Bits of Freedom.

Surveillance issues have also raised alarm in Poland.

Last year, the Polish Ombudsman filed claims with the Constitutional Court, arguing that powers of secret services and intelligence agencies are broader than necessary in a democratic state.

Poland’s public prosecutor’s office in 2011 made some 1.85 million requests for data concerning telecommunication activities.

“Current Polish law fails to specify how various available technologies like GPS, outdoor microphones etc. can be used against citizens,” said Katarzyna Szymielewicz, president of the Warsaw-based human rights Panoptykon Foundation, in an email.

Poland is not currently seeking to expand its operations but Germany is.

In June, Germany’s foreign intelligence agency the BND asked for an additional €100 million to improve its capacity to oversee telecommunication surveillance.

But Germany’s federal government has yet to approve of the expansions plans, following resistance from the liberal party.

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