LONDON (TheBlaze/AP) — The Guardian newspaper says that British spies are running an online eavesdropping operation so vast that internal documents say it even outstrips the United States’ international Internet surveillance effort.

The paper cited internal documents from the British spy agency GCHQ (government communications headquarters) to claim that U.K. spies were tapping into scores of fiber optic cables to harvest data, including phone calls and emails. Fiber optic cables – thin strands of glass bundled together – have been estimated to carry some 95 percent of the world’s international voice and data traffic.

gchq

GCHQ (Photo: Wikimedia)

The Guardian said Friday that GCHQ is monitoring more than 200 cables, although it did not go into much detail as to their nature, their location, or how they were being tapped.

The documents leaked are titled “Mastering the Internet” and “Global Telecoms Exploitation,” according to the Guardian.

Edward Snowden — the former government contractor who fled the country a couple weeks ago ahead of the Guardian’s first stories about the information he leaked regarding the NSA obtaining phone record data from Verizon — called the this project in the U.K., codenamed Tempora, “the largest program of suspicionless surveillance in human history”.

“It’s not just a U.S. problem. The UK has a huge dog in this fight,” Snowden told the Guardian. “They [GCHQ] are worse than the U.S..”

Guardian Leaks More Documents Revealing U.K. Spy Operation Larger Than the NSA

This June 9, 2013 photo provided by The Guardian newspaper in London shows Edward Snowden, who worked as a contract employee at the U.S. National Security Agency, in Hong Kong. The Guardian newspaper says that the British eavesdropping agency GCHQ repeatedly hacked into foreign diplomats’ phones and emails when the U.K. hosted international conferences, even going so far as to set up a bugged Internet caf in an effort to get an edge in high-stakes negotiations. The Guardian cites more than half a dozen internal government documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden as the basis for its reporting on GCHQ’s intelligence operations. (Photo: AP/The Guardian, File)

Here’s more on the project (emphasis added):

Britain’s technical capacity to tap into the cables that carry the world’s communications – referred to in the documents as special source exploitation – has made GCHQ an intelligence superpower.

By 2010, two years after the project was first trialled, it was able to boast it had the “biggest internet access” of any member of the Five Eyes electronic eavesdropping alliance, comprising the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

UK officials could also claim GCHQ “produces larger amounts of metadata than NSA”. (Metadata describes basic information on who has been contacting whom, without detailing the content.)

By May last year 300 analysts from GCHQ, and 250 from the NSA, had been assigned to sift through the flood of data.

The Americans were given guidelines for its use, but were told in legal briefings by GCHQ lawyers: “We have a light oversight regime compared with the US”.

When it came to judging the necessity and proportionality of what they were allowed to look for, would-be American users were told it was “your call”.

The Guardian understands that a total of 850,000 NSA employees and US private contractors with top secret clearance had access to GCHQ databases.

The documents reveal that by last year GCHQ was handling 600m “telephone events” each day, had tapped more than 200 fibre-optic cables and was able to process data from at least 46 of them at a time.

Another interesting facet of the Tempora program, which the Guardian claims the documents reveal, is an “Internet buffer,” which allows the agency to watch data come in live through the fiber optic, transatlantic cables and store content for three days and metadata for up to 30 days.

The Guardian reported an unnamed source familiar with the project saying it is conducted within the scope of the law and has helped prevent crime. This week, U.S. officials with the NSA and FBI testified to the House Intelligence Committee that U.S. government intelligence collection programs too were within the confines of the law and helped thwart about 50 potential terrorist attacks.

Be sure to read the Guardian’s full post on this latest leak.

Featured image via Shutterstock.com.