GCHQ: the NSA’s little sister

GCHQ copy

A partir du 6 juin 2013, Edward Snowden révèle au monde entier dans The Guardian et le Washington Post que l’agence nationale de la sécurité américaine (NSA) effectue de gigantesques opérations de surveillance en interceptant des métadonnées et des conversations téléphoniques. Il révèle également que le service de renseignements électronique du gouvernement britannique (GCHQ) est fortement impliqué dans cet espionnage à grande échelle. Ces révélations feront un bruit retentissant dans la diplomatie internationale et l’opinion publique. La GCHQ, considérée comme la petite soeur européenne de la NSA, est peut-être la championne du monde de l’espionnage électronique.


The British GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) is the first European electronic intelligence agency. This huge agency, based in “the Doughnut” in Cheltenham since 2006, counts 6,132 employees, yet remains relatively unknown. It works hand in hand with the NSA and one could say that it is pampered by the NSA. Between 2010 and 2013 , the United States is rumoured to have paid GCHQ more than £100 million to help it perform certain missions and build interception stations. In return, the Americans want quality services and exert constant pressure on Britain. Together with the NSA, GCHQ has developed the largest data interception program in the world and it conducts the massive surveillance of almost one fourth of all global telecommunications.

The UK enjoys a great geographical position to access the “backbone”, the physical structure underlying the Internet. There are 263 submarine cables crisscrossing the world, owned by giant companies like Verizon and Vodafone. Exactly 49 of these cables go through Britain. The United Kingdom is therefore a privileged place to intercept telecommunications between Europe and North America. The Guardian estimates that 300 officers are working on these GCHQ interceptions and that millions of emails, phone calls, browsing histories and all kinds of digital content have been sucked up by GCHQ and shared with the NSA. 

GCSQMap of submarine cables passing through the UK

Snowden also revealed in The Guardian that GCHQ spied on foreign politicians during the 2009 G20 London Summit and some of the information gained was passed on to British politicians. And there are new revelations almost every week. On February 28, 2014, he revealed the Optic Nerve surveillance program. This program allowed GCHQ to intercept and store images from the webcams of millions Yahoo! users. Over a period of six months in 2008, they intercepted webcam images from more than 1.8 million users. The Yahoo! group claimed it was not aware of it and stated that it “represents a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy that is completely unacceptable”. Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, said the newspaper had only published 1 percent of the 58,000 files received from Snowden.

In this increasingly connected world, one could say that we are already living the era of Big Brother. What remedies are there? When companies spy on us to make profits, laws can be made. But in the case of intelligence agencies, the remedy is delusive because by definition everything is secret. According to the British law, surveillance and authorizations to intercept communications are granted to protect national security, prevent or detect serious crimes or to save the UK economy. However, the government could take the liberty to use this information to control the political opposition and all information collected and stored could end up in the hands of cyber mafias. Against that, there is no remedy and it is unrealistic to believe that we can completely avoid this kind of spying.

Vincent DE VIVIE & Guillaume PERROT


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