|Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) headquarters in Cheltenham, UK. Photo: Defence Images. Used under Creative Commons license|
Six global telecommunications companies - British Telecom, Interoute, Level Three, Verizon Enterprise, Viatel and Vodafone Cable - are the subject of a formal complaint by Privacy International for potential violation of human rights such as the right to privacy and freedom of expression.
The six companies were first identified this past August by Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper in Germany as having allowed Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the UK spy agency, to access their undersea fiber optic cables.
GCHQ gave code names to the collaboration agreements with the six companies - British Telecom is known as “Remedy”; while Interoute is known as “Streetcar”; Level Three is “Little”; Verizon Enterprise is “Dacron”; Viatel is “Vitreous” and Vodafone Cable is “Gerontic.” (A seventh company – Global Crossing – which is now owned by Level Three was known as “Pinnage”)
At the time of the revelations, Privacy International wrote to the companies to ask them to explain their collaboration. After failing to get any answers at all, the NGO filed a complaint on November 4 with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) asking the agency to investigate whether or not this “mass and indiscriminate collection of data and interception of communications” has violated as many as a dozen OECD guidelines.
“It is unconscionable to think that the companies that carry our most personal information either refuse to stand up for us or remain silent when our rights are violated. Far from being coerced, it appears some of the companies have gone well beyond their legal responsibility by colluding with GCHQ,” said Eric King of Privacy International.
“We call on these companies to do the right thing and halt their involvement with mass surveillance and hope the OECD will investigate what steps, if any, the companies took to defend the human rights of their customers.”
This is the second legal action taken by Privacy International to pursue the matter after whistleblower Edward Snowden first revealed how GCHQ was tapping undersea cables. In July the NGO filed an initial complaint against the UK government with the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), an independent body which has the authority to investigate UK government agencies for surveillance abuses. https://www.privacyinternational.org/press-releases/privacy-international-files-legal-challenge-against-uk-government-over-mass
GCHQ has long worried about lawsuits, according to new Snowden documents just summarized by the Guardian. “Our main concern is that references to agency practices could lead to damaging public debate which might lead to legal challenges against the current regime,” the agency wrote in a recent memo.
Indeed GCHQ “lobbied furiously to keep secret the fact that telecoms firms had gone "well beyond" what they were legally required to do to help intelligence agencies' mass interception of communications, both in the UK and overseas,” wrote James Ball.
In addition, the telecommunications companies "feared damage to their brands internationally, if the extent of their co-operation with HMG [Her Majesty's Government] became apparent,” GCHQ added in one of the memos.
Details of how GCHQ intercepts data from the cable companies have not been revealed. But in August, CorpWatch published a detailed investigation into Glimmerglass, a U.S. company, that sells technology to intercept and analyze data from fiber-optic cables. The company claims to have customers in several national intelligence agencies, notably in the U.S.