New Snowden Leak Confirms UK Spies Track Web Users’ Online Identities

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From Radio to Porn, UK Spies Track Web Users’ Online Identities

Ryan Gallagher
The Intercept : September 25, 2015

There was a simple aim at the heart of the top-secret program: Record the website browsing habits of “every visible user on the Internet.”

Before long, billions of digital records about ordinary people’s online activities were being stored every day. Among them were details cataloging visits to porn, social media and news websites, search engines, chat forums, and blogs.

The mass surveillance operation — code-named KARMA POLICE — was launched by British spies about seven years ago without any public debate or scrutiny. It was just one part of a giant global Internet spying apparatus built by the United Kingdom’s electronic eavesdropping agency, Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ.

The revelations about the scope of the British agency’s surveillance are contained in documents obtained by The Intercept from National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. Previous reports based on the leaked files have exposed how GCHQ taps into Internet cables to monitor communications on a vast scale, but many details about what happens to the data after it has been vacuumed up have remained unclear.

Amid a renewed push from the U.K. government for more surveillance powers, more than two dozen documents being disclosed today by The Intercept reveal for the first time several major strands of GCHQ’s existing electronic eavesdropping capabilities.

One system builds profiles showing people’s web browsing histories. Another analyzes instant messenger communications, emails, Skype calls, text messages, cell phone locations, and social media interactions. Separate programs were built to keep tabs on “suspicious” Google searches and usage of Google Maps.

The surveillance is underpinned by an opaque legal regime that has authorized GCHQ to sift through huge archives of metadata about the private phone calls, emails and Internet browsing logs of Brits, Americans, and any other citizens — all without a court order or judicial warrant.

Metadata reveals information about a communication — such as the sender and recipient of an email, or the phone numbers someone called and at what time — but not the written content of the message or the audio of the call.

As of 2012, GCHQ was storing about 50 billion metadata records about online communications and Web browsing activity every day, with plans in place to boost capacity to 100 billion daily by the end of that year. The agency, under cover of secrecy, was working to create what it said would soon be the biggest government surveillance system anywhere in the world.

Radio radicalization

The power of KARMA POLICE was illustrated in 2009, when GCHQ launched a top-secret operation to collect intelligence about people using the Internet to listen to radio shows.

The agency used a sample of nearly 7 million metadata records, gathered over a period of three months, to observe the listening habits of more than 200,000 people across 185 countries, including the U.S., the U.K., Ireland, Canada, Mexico, Spain, the Netherlands, France, and Germany.

A summary report detailing the operation shows that one aim of the project was to research “potential misuse” of Internet radio stations to spread radical Islamic ideas.

GCHQ spies from a unit known as the Network Analysis Center compiled a list of the most popular stations that they had identified, most of which had no association with Islam, like France-based Hotmix Radio, which plays pop, rock, funk and hip-hop music.

They zeroed in on any stations found broadcasting recitations from the Quran, such as a popular Iraqi radio station and a station playing sermons from a prominent Egyptian imam named Sheikh Muhammad Jebril. They then used KARMA POLICE to find out more about these stations’ listeners, identifying them as users on Skype, Yahoo, and Facebook.

The summary report says the spies selected one Egypt-based listener for “profiling” and investigated which other websites he had been visiting. Surveillance records revealed the listener had viewed the porn site Redtube, as well as Facebook, Yahoo, YouTube, Google’s blogging platform Blogspot, the photo-sharing site Flickr, a website about Islam, and an Arab advertising site.

GCHQ’s documents indicate that the plans for KARMA POLICE were drawn up between 2007 and 2008. The system was designed to provide the agency with “either (a) a web browsing profile for every visible user on the Internet, or (b) a user profile for every visible website on the Internet.”

The origin of the surveillance system’s name is not discussed in the documents. But KARMA POLICE is also the name of a popular song released in 1997 by the Grammy Award-winning British band Radiohead, suggesting the spies may have been fans.

A verse repeated throughout the hit song includes the lyric, “This is what you’ll get, when you mess with us.”

The Black Hole

GCHQ vacuums up the website browsing histories using “probes” that tap into the international fiber-optic cables that transport Internet traffic across the world.

A huge volume of the Internet data GCHQ collects flows directly into a massive repository named Black Hole, which is at the core of the agency’s online spying operations, storing raw logs of intercepted material before it has been subject to analysis.

Black Hole contains data collected by GCHQ as part of bulk “unselected” surveillance, meaning it is not focused on particular “selected” targets and instead includes troves of data indiscriminately swept up about ordinary people’s online activities. Between August 2007 and March 2009, GCHQ documents say that Black Hole was used to store more than 1.1 trillion “events” — a term the agency uses to refer to metadata records — with about 10 billion new entries added every day.

As of March 2009, the largest slice of data Black Hole held — 41 percent — was about people’s Internet browsing histories. The rest included a combination of email and instant messenger records, details about search engine queries, information about social media activity, logs related to hacking operations, and data on people’s use of tools to browse the Internet anonymously.

Throughout this period, as smartphone sales started to boom, the frequency of people’s Internet use was steadily increasing. In tandem, British spies were working frantically to bolster their spying capabilities, with plans afoot to expand the size of Black Hole and other repositories to handle an avalanche of new data.

By 2010, according to the documents, GCHQ was logging 30 billion metadata records per day. By 2012, collection had increased to 50 billion per day, and work was underway to double capacity to 100 billion. The agency was developing “unprecedented” techniques to perform what it called “population-scale” data mining, monitoring all communications across entire countries in an effort to detect patterns or behaviors deemed suspicious. It was creating what it said would be, by 2013, “the world’s biggest” surveillance engine “to run cyber operations and to access better, more valued data for customers to make a real world difference.”

(read the full article at The Intercept)

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