Over the last three years I’ve touched upon Britain’s mass surveillance of Ireland’s electronic communications traffic, internal and external, a number of times. Since the late 1980s the British intelligence services have expanded from a programme of targeted spying on certain individuals and organisations to a strategy of observing and where necessary recording all electronic information relating to telephone calls, faxes, text messages, emails and general internet activities on or from this island nation. In large part that change in tactics was due to the growth and importance of the internet and the increasing personalisation of computing technologies. However it also reflected the simple fact that if the institutions of a state believe they can do something that will serve the interests of their state they will probably do so, however questionable it may be.
Of course on a more practical level online and remote surveillance was expected to reduce employee numbers and budgets for intelligence-gathering organizations, as well as the obvious risks encountered in the deployment of field agents. For hefty initial investments long-term savings were expected from the new model of “spying by accountants” championed by the NSA and others (the resemblance to the war-lite model promulgated by the thinktank generals around Donald Rumsfeld is not coincidental). In reality the costs have far outstripped the savings as a sort of intelligence-industrial complex has arisen to exploit a new market of lucrative government contracts (not to mention a youthful generation of eSpies eager to prove their worth over their more traditional peers).
So to the latest revelations of British espionage activities against Ireland via the Irish Times newspaper:
“New documents released this week via the National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden outline how Irish subsea telecommunications cables have been targeted by British intelligence.
A document titled “Partner Cables” list the cables that Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) has accessed or sought to access. The commercial owners of the cables are identified by codenames.
The cables include the Solas undersea cable, which extends from the Wexford coast to southern Wales.
The owner of the cable is listed as “GERONTIC”, the password for Cable & Wireless, which is now part of Vodafone. The method of access is described as “DCO” or Direct Cable Ownership.
British intelligence also access the Hibernia cable, which connects Ireland to the US and Canada from Dublin to Halifax,Nova Scotia. It loops to the UK via Southport, on the other side of the Irish Sea.
It is listed as a cable to which GCHQ does not “currently have good access”.
According to the documents, the only providers assisting GCHQ with access to the Hibernia cable are called “VITREOUS” and “LITTLE”. They provide what’s called IRU/LC or “Indefeasible Rights of Use/Lit Capacity” access. An Irish company linked to the VITREOUS codename last night denied involvement.
Other cables highlighted in a master list that may be targeted include: “BT-TE1”, a cable that lands in Holyhead in Wales and is co-owned by Eircom and BT. This cable has not been in use for more than 10 years, according to Eircom. BT declined to comment last night.
A cable called ESAT 1, which goes from Kilmore Quay in Wexford and lands at Sennen Cove in Cornwall, is on the list, as is ESAT2, another cable that runs from Sandymount in Dublin to Southport, north of Liverpool in the UK.”
To make it clear to the reader this is not just a case of the British intelligence services secretly “tapping into” Irish telephonic and internet traffic via land and maritime cables. Rather in most cases they are being provided free (or commercial) access to the information by companies associated with the use, ownership or maintenance of these cables. And it is all information, every email you send, every message, every internet search or visit, every upload or download, albeit collated and filtered through layers of software programmes before being flagged up for human review (if required).
I am also minded that given the nature of An Sionnach Fionn and the range of political, historical, military and technological matters we discuss here this website almost certainly features on a watch-list somewhere in Britain’s automated intelligence gathering apparatus (as quite possibly does my own internet communications). Not because of its importance or influence – it has neither – but instead simply because the British now have the financial and technological resources to do so. So why not?