Tempora, the British PRISM 2.0


What is Tempora?

So, what exactly is Tempora? Tempora is described as an “internet buffer zone” in which the data would pass through and be stored before continuing to its destination. The Guardian newspaper makes the analogy of a digital TV box which you can use to record video transmissions and data prior to it reaching your television screen. Since its creation by the British government, Tempora has been used (just as PRISM has) to spy not only on the population at large, but on diplomatic gatherings as well, and to gather all sorts of information from metadata as well as content, from telephone calls to facebook posts and e-mails. It seems that the United States is not the only government to have covertly spied on high-level government officials or diplomats at international gatherings.

Akin to the PRISM programme (on which I have written recently) Tempora was initiated by the British Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) and was intended to massively monitor internet communication as well as the creation of a huge database to collect, analyze and store this data. It is divided in two sections which reflect the agency’s ambition and ability: “Mastering the Internet” and “Global Telecoms Exploitation”. The former may have originated as far back as 2007 while the latter seems to have more recent roots dating to 2010.

The GCHQ is home to over 4,000 employees, housed in the agency’s office complexes in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, known as “The Doughnut”, which also is the site of the large data-collection system of Tempora. The website describes the agency as “one of the three UK Intelligence Agencies and forms a crucial part of the UK’s National Intelligence and Security machinery… [it] provides intelligence, protects information and informs relevant UK policy to keep our society safe and successful in the Internet age“. Recently, Richard J. Aldrich, a British Author, has published a book called “GCHQ: The Uncensored Story of Britain’s Most Secret Intelligence Agency” in which he catalogs in detail the shady and questionable activities of this agency since the inter-war years. We will, however, only focus on this most recent scandal.

The rationale utilized for the justification for the existence of such a surveillance system is, as all other oppressive and highly questionable surveillance programs of the recent years, the fear of terrorism – a fear which the American and British and European public have been force-fed since 2001 by complementing political rhetoric, low-grade corporate journalism, and which has been reinforced in a myriad of ways, from the most trivial to the most essential, through societal relations and media propaganda dissemination.
The real rationale, however, was that early in 2009 the officials of the GCHQ found themselves at a disadvantage relative to the emerging new communication technologies, especially pertaining to the internet, and their loss of surveillance control as a result. This is exemplified in an internal e-mail recently leaked by Snowden to the British newspaper The Guardian stating:

The rapid development of different technologies, types of traffic, service providers and networks, and the growth in sheer volumes that accompany particularly the expansion and use of the internet, present an unprecedented challenge to the success of GCHQ’s mission. Critically we are not currently able to prioritise and task the increasing range and scale of our accesses at the pace, or with the coherence demanded of the internet age: potentially available data is not accessed, potential benefit for HMG is not delivered.
How does it work?
The GCHQ is able to access nearly all the information that originates from/to, as well as transits through, the United Kingdom, especially through the underwater fiber-optic cables that connect then to the island of Great Britain from neighboring nations. These nations are Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Denmark. This was achieved with the installation of monitoring stations on each of these cables, “each with a capacity of 10 gigabits per second. In theory, that gave GCHQ access to a flow of 21.6 petabytes in a day, equivalent to 192 times the British Library’s entire book collection.”


Through the documents leaked by now world-famous whistle-blower and former CIA contractor Edward Snowden, it is possible to assert that the programme was able to survey nearly all (1,500 of 1,600) high-capacity internet cables in and out of the United Kingdom, and could harvest information from at least 400 of them simultaneously. The information was intended to be shared with the British government, as well as MI5 and MI6 intelligence agencies. Although conceptually established two years prior, the operation did not commence until May of 2012. Since then, for 18 months, roughly three-hundred GCHQ analysts and over 250 NSA employees dug through the data daily, examining the communication records of over 600 million people.

Oh yeah, did I mention that the NSA was also involved in the project, that the data collected by the Tempora project was shared with them, and that that the GCHQ and the American NSA collaborated in the analysis of the data? In addition, from the published leaked slides, it appears that the Canadian Communication Security Establishment, the Canadian government’s national cryptologic agency, was also involved as part of a greater project amongst the “Five Eyes” electronic eavesdropping alliance nations of Canada, United States, United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia as the leaked report itself states. Information within that report also clearly states that the United Kingdom and the GCHQ had the “biggest internet access” among the “Five Eyes” nations, and that the Tempora program even outmatched its American counterpart (PRISM) – “We are in the golden age,” the report states.

G20 and Commonwealth Meetings 

As previously mentioned, the programme was not only utilized to spy on average citizens as well as suspects of terrorist activities, but were intentionally and explicitly utilized to gather information from the GPRS networks of representatives at the G20 summit meetings held in London on April 4th, 2009. For this, the United Kingdom is currently experiencing a series of diplomatic incidents with countries such as Turkey, Ireland and Russia.

Slide 1 - Tempora
Collusion of Companies

It is yet uncertain whether the companies involved in this scheme were subjugated, threatened and/or forcibly pressured in some sort by intelligence officials into complying with this initiative or colluded with it voluntarily. The Guardian, however, has claimed to be unable to disclose the names of those companies citing the fact that “the exact identities of the companies that have signed up, are regarded as extremely sensitive, and classified as top secret. Staff are instructed to be very careful about sharing information that could reveal which companies are ‘special source’ providers, for fear of ‘high-level political fallout’. In one document, the companies are described as ‘intercept partners’.

Far from being intended to benefit corporations, this programme is instead geared towards a function of social and societal control, to maintain the control of the potentially dissident population, and as such to prevent the breakdown of government functions that indeed serve such enormous private interests.

Germany next?

So, which country or agency will be next to be exposed in this falling line of dominoes initiated by Edward Snowden’s leak? Nobody can be quite certain, but some strong indications are pointing at the next financial and communication European superpower: Germany. The link between German, British, and United States foreign affairs and communication policies since the end of world war two has been tightening at an increasing and documents leaked earlier this month show, through an analysis software called “Boudless Informant“, that Germany is indeed one of the main sourcesof intelligence for the NSA. In addition, scrutiny has already begun into the operations of the German “Bundesnachrichtendienst” (Federal Intelligence Service) and EUR 100 mln. project of internet monitoring which would give it access, like PRISM and Tempora, to a large portion of domestic and inter-border internet traffic (about 20% of Germany’s total).

Ruben Rosenberg Colorni

The Global Oyster posted only a shorter version of Ruben’s article, if you want to read the full one, click here and follow his blog!


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