The Malta Independent 25 June 2022, Saturday

Snowden documents show Malta’s internet links tapped by UK government communications HQ

David Lindsay Sunday, 30 November 2014, 10:30 Last update: about 9 years ago

The latest cache of documents released by US National Security Agency contractor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden, shows that Malta's internet communications to and from the rest of the word have been tapped by the UK's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).

Documents from Snowden's latest cache of documents show that in 2009, GCHQ - and probably by association the US National Security Agency, both of which have been implicated by Snowden's revelations as close cohorts in wide-ranging espionage activities - had access to the traffic on 63 submarine cable links around the globe, Malta's submarine cable link to Italy included.

Earlier document leaks by Snowden indicated that spy agencies are tapping most of the world's long distance fibre-optic cables. In June, The Guardian newspaper published details from top secret documents leaked by Snowden of a major GCHQ interception programme, codenamed Tempora, which involves harvesting all data, emails sent and received, instant messages, calls, passwords and more, entering and exiting Britain via undersea fibre-optic cables.

That operation, it emerges from the latest Snowden documents, were not limited to communications in and out of the UK.

The tapping of Malta's internet link to Italy forms part of an extensive list of submarine cables that have been tapped by the GCHQ, according to a set of Snowden documents made public this week by German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.

The cables listed in Snowden's latest release handle the vast majority of international internet traffic as well as private network connections between telecommunications providers and corporate data centres.

In the Snowden documents, the Malta- Italy cable is specifically listed as having been tapped, and it gives the "partner cable's" name the code name of 'street car', aka Interoute. In January 2009, European voice and data operator Interoute completed more than 300 kilometres of undersea fibre optic cable in the Mediterranean, providing a connection for Malta to Italy and from there to the rest of the world.

A joint investigation by German television stations NDR and WDR, German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and the UK's Channel 4 based on documents leaked by Snowden, reveals that such partners were paid millions for their complicity in the tapping.

As of July 2009, relationships with three telecommunication companies, one of which was Interoute, provided access to 592 fibre optic cables each transmitting up to 10 gigabits of data per second. Additionally, GCHQ had access to 69 equally fast cables known as "egress pipes" from which the agency could pull up data for analysis.

NSA 'authorised' to spy on Maltese government since 2010

The tapping of Malta's submarine link to the outside world could also be related to the NSA's blanket authority it had been given by the US government to spy on foreign governments, including the Maltese government.

This newspaper had revealed recently how, for the first time since Snowden last year revealed the extent of the US government's espionage on foreign governments, it was shown that the NSA has been 'authorised' since at least 2010 to spy on the Maltese government and components.

The revelation, which was most likely be news to the Maltese government, came in the form of a top secret document of the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that 'authorised' the NSA to spy on "foreign governments or any components thereof" - a list in which the Maltese government features along with most other countries.

The Washington Post recently published a document classified as "Top Secret" by the US Attorney General, 21 years before the document's designated declassification date of 15 July 2035.

The document lists a total of 193 foreign governments as well as foreign factions, political organisations and other entities that were part of a 2010 certification approved by the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, also called the FISA Court.

The list comprises entities on which the NSA may conduct surveillance for the purpose of gathering foreign intelligence and intercepting information concerning the entities on the list.

According to The Washington Post, the NSA can "intercept through US companies not just the communications of its overseas targets but any communications about its targets as well".

While the document shows that the NSA was authorised by the FISA Court to spy on the Maltese government and its individual components, there is no smoking gun showing that it actually did. The wide intelligence net that the NSA cast across Europe and virtually the rest of the globe suggests otherwise.

And while Malta would not exactly be considered an intelligence target of the likes of Germany or France, both of which have raised strong objections to NSA eavesdropping in their countries - in the former case the NSA is accused of intercepting the phone calls of Chancellor Angela Merkel herself - Malta's status as an EU member and its pivotal role in the recent Libyan uprising could very well have made it a target for the NSA.

In fact, The Washington Post article states the NSA is not "necessarily" collecting intelligence on all of the countries identified in the documents, but it has the blanket authority to do so.

The documents reveal that the NSA had even more free rein when it came to the surveillance of foreign individuals than was previously known, raising major concerns about the privacy implications this programme could have.

The documents published also revealed new information about one of the most controversial NSA practices - collecting the emails and phone calls of foreign individuals and institutions under Section 702 of the 2008 FISA Amendments Act. An affidavit supporting the secret certification published on the same day stipulates that foreign individuals can be targeted if the NSA believes they "possess, are expected to receive and/or are likely to communicate foreign intelligence information concerning these foreign powers".

That means academics or journalists who correspond with foreign governments could easily be targeted if the NSA determines that they possess information that could be used for foreign intelligence.



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