Lessons from "Secret" History - From Cable Vetting to TEMPORA

by Poacher

"No doubt it is comforting to be told that one's privacy is as fully protected in a public telephone booth as it is at home.  But it is less reassuring to realize that one's privacy is no better protected at home than in a public telephone booth." - Telford Taylor, Two Studies in Constitutional Interpretation, Ohio State University Press, 1969.

In the early days of last summer, I was reading a piece on the news about the damage to two undersea cables off of the coast of Egypt.  Somewhere along the line, I was pointed to a map of the world's undersea cables for carrying Internet traffic.  It's an astounding map showing the hundreds and thousands of miles of cable laid on the sea beds of the world.  I was further amazed to find that one of the links between the U.K. and Western Europe came ashore a few miles from my house.

I knew the location - I remembered childhood expeditions to the beach there and the faded yellow sign warning ships of the cable.  Of course, it hadn't been a thick collection of multi-mode fiber optic cables back then, but a bundle of copper phone lines.  I took a walk down there, curious to see what the landing station for probably one fifth of the U.K's Internet traffic with Europe would look like.

What I found looked little different from when it carried a simple copper wire across the Channel.  A small brick building, probably built in the late 1940s, little larger than a garden shed.  The yellow diamond shaped sign was still there on a wooden pole about ten yards down the slope to the beach, facing the sea and warning any ships so hopefully no one would drop anchor and drag the cable up.  Beneath the tiled roof, vents had been knocked through the bricks and a telephone company sign was screwed to the wall proclaiming the building to be an exchange.  The windows had all been more recently bricked up and some fairly high end locks fitted to the green painted front door.  A sturdy wooden fence surrounded the rear and, peering over this, I was greeted with what had once been a small but well kept garden, now overgrown, but suggesting a long past era when a small exchange like this would have been manned.

Over the course of that summer, a number of subjects I was looking at all came into an odd kind of coincidence and a strange story emerged linking Edward Snowden's revelations, the First World War, and a political scandal in the 1960s.  The starting point was the cable landing station, the finishing point an unpleasant conclusion about widespread state surveillance.

By the nineteenth century, Britain was at the height of its imperial power - the empire that the sun never set on and an economy to match it.  Administering such a vast commercial enterprise required armies of civil servants and a communications infrastructure that was state of the art.  So when in 1844, the first successful electrical Morse transmissions were made between Washington and Baltimore, it is no surprise that Great Britain would adopt this new technology with zeal and vigor.

Britain had a couple of advantages over the rest of the world at this time in history which gave it the head start in the nascent communications revolution.  The size of its economy meant there were plenty of people willing to take the risky step of investing in new and unproven technology.  Along with the largest Navy in the world, Britain also had the largest merchant fleet.  There were clear commercial advantages to being able to communicate with your ship's captains as soon as they made port rather than wait for them to return home weeks later to receive their next instructions.  A last advantage, which we shall touch on again before this is over, was the empire itself.  Being a maritime economy, Britain had amassed a large collection of islands and coastal territory all over the world.  These were vital for ships to take on fresh water and food, and later as bunkering stations when coal and then oil took over as means of powering ships.  Often little more than outcrops of rock in a vast ocean, these stations became very important as relay stations, first for telegraph and then later for wireless.  Little surprise then that by 1896, of the 30 cable laying ships in the world, 24 of them were British owned.

Despite being privately financed and owned, it is clear that such an important tool as the world's first electronic communication network should be subject to government control.  Government operators on the system could claim priority in sending messages.  The British also realized the importance of communications security very early on.  Alert to the dangers of cables passing through territory they didn't control, where the cable could be cut or listened in to, they set about creating what was to be called the "All Red Network," named so because the areas on a world map belonging to the British Empire were colored red.

The importance of this became very apparent in the (((1914-1918 war))).  At the outbreak of the conflict, although the Marconi Company had begun to build a wireless network to replace telegraph, Britain had a fleet of 28 cable laying/cutting vessels, more than twice the rest of the world combined.  These were put to good use in 1914 when war was declared on Germany and Cable Ship Alert was deployed to cut the five cables linking Germany with France, Spain, and the Azores, thus severing Germany's links with North America, save for wireless, which British Naval intelligence could intercept.

We now jump to 1967 - sadly missing the stirring tales of wartime signals intercept and code-breaking, the formation of GCHQ out of the Government Code and Cipher School and the birth of the NSA, among many others.  Lyndon Johnson is resident of the White House, Harold Wilson is Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.  The Vietnam war is in full swing, the SEACOM telephone cable is inaugurated, the Boeing 737 makes it maiden flight, the (((Six-Day War))) happens, and, more dramatically, there is a 13-day television strike in the United States.

Harold Wilson came into power after the resignation of Harold Macmillan.  In opposition, Wilson had seen the effect that several high profile spy scandals had had on his predecessor and has been said to have been extremely sensitive about matters of security while in office, to the point of paranoia.

In 1966, Wilson established what has become known as "The Wilson Doctrine."  This rule states that no member of Parliament should have their phone tapped.  This rule has been continued by every prime minister since and now covers electronic communications as well.  Harold Wilson's decision to implement this rule becomes interesting a year later.

On the 21st of February, 1967, journalist Chapman Pincher published an article in the Daily Express newspaper exposing the practice of "Cable Vetting," a process where all international telegram and Telex messages were passed on to government agencies by the cable companies.  Purportedly, the story originated with a disgruntled employee of one of the cable companies.

Sadly, it seems the real issue of the story became overshadowed by the misguided attempts by Wilson to cover it up.  In the U.K. since 1912, a voluntary system of press censorship had existed known a "D Notices" or "DA Notices."  These "Defence Advisory" notices were requests by Government to the press not to publish stories on a range of subjects that could be detrimental to national security.  They were not legally enforceable, however, it was almost unheard of for an editor to ignore a D-Notice.

The resulting scandal which hinged upon whether a D-Notice had been issued in respect of the story rumbled on for quite some time, and it seems the actual story became forgotten in the mass of inquiries that followed.  The political scandal is now what's remembered and not the interception of private messages.

The issue that Pincher exposed is resoundingly familiar in 2013, the widespread interception of private citizens' correspondence enabled by a secret relationship between communications companies and Government departments.

Coming almost up to the present day and this time The Guardian newspaper is publishing material provided by ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden.  On Friday the 21st of June, 2013, The Guardian ran a story describing how GCHQ is tapping fiber optic cables to access the world's Internet traffic.

A look at the submarine cable map will show the British Isles as having a huge number of cables landing on its almost 8000 miles of coastline.  Take a look at some of the more remote landing stations and you'll find they are often in what were historically British controlled ports and islands.  In fact, take a look at some historical maps of the early telegraph cables and you'll find a lot of them are in the same places as the current Internet links.

The geographical cards that Great Britain held are really the underpinning of the special intelligence relationship between Britain and the United States of America.  The now widely known UKUSA Agreement, just one of a complex web of agreements dating back to the Second World War, was always an asymmetrical relationship.  What could the U.K. offer against the vast resources, cash, and manpower that the U.S. intelligence community had?  The answer is some very useful real estate, both in the U.K. and abroad.  A prime example of this is the effect that a temporary ban on U.S. reconnaissance flights from U.K. bases had.  Imposed by Harold Wilson in 1967, this coincided with the outbreak of the (((Six-Day War))) in the Middle East.  At one point, the U.S. had to resort to flying spy planes from the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. all the way to the Sinai Desert, involving a large number of hazardous in-flight refueling, both going and returning.

After PRISM, Snowden revealed TEMPORA, GCHQ's massive cable tapping program where petabytes of information are pulled from the cables and stored for up to 30 days.  Tapping over 200 fiber optic cables and processing data from over 46 at a time, GCHQ and, by extension, the NSA are listening in on a huge percentage of the world's web traffic.

Once again in echoes of 1967, we find that this has been happening behind the scenes with the complicity of the private companies entrusted with carrying the data.  And yet again, we have seen the attention of the media shifted away from the actual story and focusing upon the surrounding scandal: the sensational hunt for Snowden and then his stranding in Moscow turning the spotlight away from what Edward Snowden was revealing and towards Snowden as a media event.  Much the same has happened to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.

So, from a remote cable landing station, we arrive at the latest mass surveillance initiative.  During the D-Notice affair, it was revealed that "cable vetting" had been going on since at least the 1920s.  TEMPORA had been going for a couple of years when it was revealed.

But what of the intervening years?  There is the period of time between telegrams and the Internet when the majority of communications traffic was carried through the plain old telephone system.  It is surely inconceivable that governments used to being able to listen in to its citizens at will since the creation of electronic communication would have sat back and done nothing.

Short of documents being declassified, and I doubt we'll see that in this lifetime, we are left with waiting for another whistle-blower to reveal the truth.  There is, however, a little evidence out there that may point to what we all suspect has been happening.

In 2000, the United Kingdom government was taken to the European Court of Human Rights over the wholesale tapping of telephone calls between the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland.  A year before, Channel 4 News had reported on a tower in Capenhurst, Cheshire, which was used to intercept microwave links between the U.K. and Ireland.  The tower, subsequently sold off for 20 million pounds, sat between telephone relay stations at Gwaenysgor, Clywd, and Pale Heights near Chester.  It allegedly had the capacity to intercept 10,000 simultaneous phone channels.  The site was in operation for ten years from 1989 until 1999.

This is probably the tip of a very large iceberg.  It's likely that there has been widespread monitoring of the phone system since it began.  In the U.K., it would have been trivially easy, as for most of its history the telephone network in the U.K. was run by the government.  Starting as the Electric Telegraph Company in 1846, by 1912 the running of the network was taken over by the General Post Office, a government department.  It was not until 1984 that it was privatized to become British Telecom.

Wholesale government monitoring of the communications of its citizens is as old as the communications networks.  Despite being exposed, they just keep on doing it and the public seems quick to forget.  It's sad to think that the bravery of people like Edward Snowden may ultimately come to nothing, but so far that's the lesson that history is teaching us.  It's up to the rest of us now not to forget and not to willfully ignore what's going on and to demand transparency, not just from governments, but also from the companies that carry our traffic.  After all, we're paying for a service; we have the right to stipulate how that service is provided.