GCHQ accused of monitoring Facebook Likes and YouTube views

News by Steve Gold

Is GCHQ sifting through everyone's UK Internet usage metadata?

The revealing white light of former NSA analyst Edward Snowden's stream of revelations swung away from the NSA (National Security Agency) in the US - and over to GCHQ here in the UK this week - amidst claims that that the UK's security agency is sifting through citizen's Facebook `likes', YouTube viewing habits, Twitter `follows' and even which Google blogging sites we all visit.

With a snappy moniker of `Squeaky Dolphin,' the GCHQ operation is reportedly harvesting the terabytes of metadata that Internet users generate every day as they visit some of the most popular sites and services on the Internet.

According to NBC News, which broke the story late yesterday, GCHQ showed off its Squeaky Dolphin capabilities back in 2012, since when Facebook has since started encrypting its data transmissions, although Google's YouTube and Blogger services are unencrypted.

NBC's revelations follow hard on the heels of news about how the NSA and GCHQ are working on plans to surveil the data streams of smartphone apps.

According to the New York Times  this week data generated from a variety of gaming and social media apps - including Facebook and Angry Birds - is already being sniffed by the security agencies.

News that data streams from Facebook and Google's users are being snooped upon has reportedly sent the Internet giants into a quiet fury - amidst further claims that they are not cooperating with the security agencies in breaching their users' privacy rights.

SCMagazineUK.com notes that GCHQ's Squeaky Dolphin programme seems to add credence to earlier claims that the UK security agency has been tapping international fibre optic connections.

In those claims - published by the Guardian newspaper - the fibre optic tapping, known as Operation Tempora, has been going on since 2011.

Back at NBC, meanwhile, and the news station claims its reports are based on an Edward Snowden document called `Psychology: A New Kind of Sigdev' - something that also adds credence to reports that GCHQ is building psychological profiles up on its surveillance targets, drawing on Internet usage metadata.

Whilst Facebook and Google told NBC News that they have not given GCHQ permission to collate the data, leading pen tester Peter Wood, CEO of First Base Technologies, said the clear analogy here is with the river of data that the Internet creates.

"If you imagine that GCHQ has the ability to divert this river, then fishing out information of interest to them, then you'd be pretty surprised if they weren't doing this," he said.

"I think the issue is not with GCHQ's actions in this regard, however, as whilst I have every confidence in the integrity of GCHQ's staff and their actions, the same clearly cannot be said for the NSA's activities. It seems that some agency staff have been over-enthusiastic in their actions, especially when it comes to employing third parties to carry out their surveillance. This is clearly demonstrated by the actions of Edward Snowden himself," he added.

Rob Bamforth, a Principal Analyst with business and research analysis house Quocirca, was equally sanguine about the actions of GCHQ.

"These reports do not surprise me, quite frankly. I think the key question that need to be asked, however, is who knew about these surveillance actions - and what and where they are being carried out," he said.

"Okay. The corporate entities [such as Facebook and Google] are not happy. But what are they unhappy about? Is it that they are displeased about being found out - or that there are security weaknesses in their products and services?," he added.

Bamforth went on to pour cold water on some observations that suggest a highly joined-up approach being carried out by the likes of the NSA, the CIA and GCHQ, telling SCMagazineUK.com that he tends to come down on the side of cock-ups, rather than conspiracies, when surveillance revelations - like the ones that Edward Snowden is constantly revealing - come out.

Yes, he said, the security agencies are monitoring us all, but are they all operating in concert in their actions? I have my doubts about this," he said.

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