back to article Revealed: GCHQ's beyond top secret Middle Eastern internet spy base

Above-top-secret details of Britain’s covert surveillance programme - including the location of a clandestine British base tapping undersea cables in the Middle East - have so far remained secret, despite being leaked by fugitive NSA sysadmin Edward Snowden. Government pressure has meant that some media organisations, despite …

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  1. Luke 11

    TRAITORS

    You people absolutely disgust me. Disseminating this information puts us and government personnel in danger. You're as bad as that traitor Snowden and should be hung for treason.

    Bugger the fact that these installations cost tens of millions to design and build so you're essentially throwing hard earned tax payers money down the drain.

    I can't believe how disgusted I am right now. You make me want to be sick.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: TRAITORS

      I would imagine.. Having had a look on google earth at the satellite photos:

      That what this installation is and does is probably a common urban legend amongst the locals near the site.

      It looks like its visible from the passing motorway, and not far from other buildings. Local contractors probably built the place, and provide the day to day security, cleaning, and general facilities functions.

      If its staffed by locals, they'll know what goes on, if its staffed exclusively by sunburnt westerners, they'll guess what goes on.

      Just because our national press is bullied into not publishing something, doesn't mean that no-one knows about it.

      I assume the register has taken this step because its 'out-there' somewhere else now.

      1. Stuart 22

        Re: TRAITORS

        I worked for a company one of whose major markets was sensitive parts of the UK IT infrastructure. It too had a specialist relationship team. The point was to create a firewall in the transference of both information and product between us and them. This enabled us on the outside to behave both legally and morally correct.

        By definition we did not know what happened the other side of the firewall. Whether it was moral or legal. Neither, I suspect, did the CEO. That was left in trust to the relevant government structure. It is the responsibility for government to govern itself on this. When corners are cut or worse we need whistleblowers. When they get too awkward, like Snowden it is a message that an internal whistleblower process is not working and that is the real damaging fact.

        Silly names for BT or the payment for services contracted is neither here nor there. Better it be part of the corporation than having our security services infiltrate them. More expensive and less efficient. But it isn't going to stop anything.

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    2. dogged

      KUDOS

      Thanks, El Reg, for being brave enough to actually inform (some of) the public about what is done with our money, in our name.

      The kid above is probably fourteen and still thinks Britain can do no wrong - don't mind him. Without a Fourth Estate that actually reports and provides accountability, the politicians will abuse power, the bureaucracies that feed them will seize ever more and we shall continue to be expected to shut up and obey our masters.

      Well, fuck 'em.

      And BT.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: KUDOS

        Humour bypass? I'm disgusted that a Briton can not sense humour, even clumsy humour. Or is this a cunning counter-humour response_

      2. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

        Re: KUDOS

        brave enough to actually inform (some of) the public

        What's brave about it?

        The fact that this is happening is surely no surprise to anyone. Spies spy, it's their job. I'd be more worried if I found out that GHCQ staff just sat around analyzing the world's newspapers each day.

        El Reg claims that the info is already in the hands of the bad guys, so they might as well tell us about it as well. If their assumption is true then this looks just like they didn't want to miss out on the fun, no journo likes to be "scooped", especially if it's going to be by the Grauniad or the Daily Fail. Of course, if their information is false, and the details weren't widely known, then publishing them may put the lives of the workers at these sites at risk, to no obvious benefit for anyone. Either way it seems pointless at best, and perhaps the sort of article better left to New Statesman than an online IT rag.

        1. Gordon 10 Silver badge
          Thumb Up

          Re: KUDOS @Phil

          "better left to New Statesman than an online IT rag."

          Ah yes - let someone else do it. The rallying cry of the apathetic and irresponsible since days of yore.

          As a previous poster mentioned shouldn't we be congratulating El Reg for living up to the principles of the 4th Estate?

          1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge
            Thumb Down

            Re: KUDOS @Phil

            Ah yes - let someone else do it. The rallying cry of the apathetic and irresponsible since days of yore.

            I take it you didn't read the article's byline, then? Or maybe it didn't ring any bells?

            shouldn't we be congratulating El Reg for living up to the principles of the 4th Estate?

            What, publish the muck before someone else gets paid to do it before you can?

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: KUDOS

          "Spies spy, it's their job".

          I'm actually pretty sick of seeing that remark. The implication is that spying is just part of nature's rich pageant, just another line of work that some people do.

          But the wording is carefully calculated to blur the fact that spying is often unethical or illegal. Indeed, it's almost always illegal according to the people being spied on.

          How come other nations' spies are filthy cowardly traitors who deserve to be executed or kept in prison for the rest of their lives - while our nation's spies are self-sacrificing heroes doing an essential job to keep us all safe?

          1. Vic

            Re: KUDOS

            How come other nations' spies are filthy cowardly traitors who deserve to be executed or kept in prison for the rest of their lives - while our nation's spies are self-sacrificing heroes doing an essential job to keep us all safe?

            That's Melchett's Law, isn't it?

            Vic.

        3. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: KUDOS

          "the sort of article better left to New Statesman than an online IT rag."

          Maybe so, but on that basis Worrall generally doesn't belong here either. If Worrall's stuff comes out here on a regular basis, with or without an IT connection, why not an occasional Duncan Campbell or similar ? Especially so if there is a genuine IT connection, as there is here.

          Apologies if this has already been noted.

          Any "SEO experts" know how we get this article headlining on Google News?

          I'd encourage re-tweeting if I knew how....

          1. That Lewis Page (Written by Reg staff)

            Re: Re: KUDOS

            There is also the small issue that nobody else in the media (Guardian, Indy on down) had enough guts to publish it. If those guys didn't, the chance of the Statesman doing so? Slim. But we were up for it.

      3. This post has been deleted by its author

        1. Terry Cloth

          Antecedents needed

          Sorry---without threading, I get confused who's replying to whom. (Is there a way to know which reply attaches to which post? I don't see it on offer in my preferences.)

          However, if you're suggesting that publishing info about GCHQ invites censorship, I suggest you examine your position a bit more critically. Gov't censorship is at least visible; self-censorship can be worse.

          1. Terry Cloth

            Hoist with my own commentard

            My above post was in reply to @Roger Pearse:

            ``In your own terms, you're helping bring censorship into being.''

      4. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: KUDOS

        He's not fourteen, dogged, he's eleven. He says so in his name. Unless he means '11 - which would make him three.

        Anyway, as he'd recall, had he been born at the time, Snowden saw fit to take himself on a jolly little tour of the most powerful and interested countries on earth BEFORE releasing the material to the public media. There, he negotiated the PRICE and terms with the Chinese then Russian governments. This was always a story of either greed or counter-intelligence. Both equally likely and it's practically impossible for us, the ignorant private observer to determine which it is. EITHER way, however, the information published by El Reg is ancient news to the Chinese government, the Russian government, and the world's media. The only people on earth who don't know about this are us - the poor ignorant sods under whose name and at whose expense it's being done!

        To my utterly untrained and uninformed eye, the whole thing stinks. FAR too lax - even for those pesky 'merkins.

        I'd chance a tenner on that thing at Seeb being a desalination station.

        1. asiaseen

          Re: KUDOS

          No, the desalination station is further down the coast towards Muscat

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: KUDOS

          "I'd chance a tenner on that thing at Seeb being a desalination station."

          I'll take that Tenner, thank you. They tend to build desalination plants next to the water in that part of the world.

          I'll give you a hint - look up the word 'Tropo-scatter'.

          Seeing I'm unlikely to collect, i'll have a beer instead.

    3. Callam McMillan

      Re: TRAITORS

      To be honest, if it's on The Register, then it's hardly top secret any more. You should be more disgusted at the laziness of modern intelligence gathering, if the only way to find out what is going on it the work nowadays is to capture everything and hope you find something useful, then the spies have a lot to answer for!

      1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

        Re: TRAITORS

        You should be more disgusted at the laziness of modern intelligence gathering, if the only way to find out what is going on it the work nowadays is to capture everything and hope you find something useful, then the spies have a lot to answer for!

        Callam McMillan,

        Reading other people's mail is a long and dishonourable tradition in government circles. And is often an excellent way of finding out what's going on. By-and-large it's also a great way to find things out that doesn't risk getting people killed. Whereas spying, in the 'James Bond' sense of wandering around where you're not supposed to be, is rather risky. In the case of the more common type, which is mostly legally resident 'diplomatic' staff recruiting locals for information - the risk varies by the regime you're spying on. But there are plenty or governments who execute traitors.

        So to give some examples. Kim Philby betrayed pretty much all of Britain's Cold War intelligence networks in Eastern Europe. I remember reading that between 50 and 200 of those people were shot. I've seen rumours from multiple sources that the GRU burned Oleg Penkovsky alive, after he'd handed over intel on Soviet nuclear readiness during the Cuban Missile crisis. That could just be a myth to frighten others of course.

        Despite all the attempts at spying though, I can't remember much in the way of political intelligence from either the Cold War or WWII. Admittedly the US may have been doing rather well at spying on microwave relays, so we may have done better in the late Cold War. But if you read a book like 'The Secret State' (by Peter Hennessey), it's both fascinating and terrifying how little the Western governments knew about Soviet politics and intentions.

        You can find out lots from looking at stuff. What the military are up to, and what kit they have. What facilities have been built. But that only tells you what a state can do or is doing. Not what it will do, or intends. Hence we 'knew' Saddam had WMD, because we'd found loads of it in the 90s, and only destroyed some of it. But we had no political intel, to tell us he'd apparently decided it wasn't worth it and had got rid of it. Which was a costly mistake.

        We also know that Iran has a nuclear program. But I've no idea what intel we have on why they've got it, and whether they intend to bargain it away, build it for safety, or even use it.

        The great thing about reading internal government documents, is that you get to find out what the government are really thinking. And saying to each other. It's quite rare to find people at that level willing to spy. And even harder to get access to them. We spent the latter part of WWII reading lots of the German HQ-level traffic, and this gave a much more useful idea of what they were up to, than you can guess from looking at where troops are actually based.

        Not that I'm defending reading ordinary peoples' mail. But spying on foriegn governments is what we have intelligence services for. And I'm perfectly happy for that to include allies like Angela Merkel. The German government's position on various global and European issues is vital to British national interests. And no nation with a foreign intelligence service itself has any right to complain too much when it gets spied on. Well the game is, you complain loudly for a bit, for appearances, and maybe get some concessions, then go back to business as usual.

        1. Vic

          Re: TRAITORS

          > we 'knew' Saddam had WMD, because we'd found loads of it in the 90s

          we 'knew' Saddam had WMD, because we'd found loads of it in the 90s sold it to him in the first place

          There, FTFY.

          Vic.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: TRAITORS@ I ain't Spartacus

          "We also know that Iran has a nuclear program. But I've no idea what intel we have on why they've got it, and whether they intend to bargain it away, build it for safety, or even use it."

          Do we know that? We know that they have civilian nuclear ambitions because they commissioned a power generating reactor to be built by the Russians. But if you read more widely than the mainstream Western press, it's interesting to see the extent to which the claims of WMD programs seem to come more from geopolitical antagonisms and deliberate management of the press by Western governments than to any real evidence that Iran has ever had much intention of building a bomb. If you recall, Saddam supposedly had WMD, and it all turned out to be a load of old c**k. Then Libya was supposedly buying nuclear weapons tech, which likewise appears to have been bluster and misinformation by both sides. In Syria there's quite a lot of evidence that the use of chemical weapons has been false flag activities intended to support intervention which was only hours away when British public opinion stopped Parliament from repeating the mistakes of Iraq all over again (and were matched by similar attitudes in the US), all this despite the BBC's propaganda machine breathlessly declaring that the Assad regime was using chemical weapons.

          The interesting thing is that despite the lack of public support for all of these actual or potential interventions, there is clearly an influential constituency who are keen on war and foreign intervention. In the light of all that, are US claims of Iranian WMD any more credible than either Iranian denials, or the Iraqi dossier? Do we think that GCHQ-on-Sea is able to actually scoop Iranian intelligence because they send plain text emails via AOL about their plans?

          And this is my problem with your proposition. Electronic spying, keeping things under wraps, depending on the "intelligence" gathered remotely keeping us safe, defending our economic interests, sounds all so pacifist and 21st century "peacekeeper". In reality this approach is why there's about 188,000 dead Iraqis (a number still increasing at around 50 per day, every day), and why the US is $2 trillion poorer, and the UK around $10bn. And the subsequent attempts to involve the West in further wars for no good reason show that nothing has changed, other than the fact that the peasants have had enough of losing costly wars started on the pretext of "intelligence".

          1. AbelSoul

            Re: TRAITORS@ I ain't Spartacus

            @Ledswinger:

            +1. Excellent post, although I'm not sure I'd go along with this bit:

            ... which was only hours away when British public opinion stopped Parliament from repeating the mistakes of Iraq all...

            If only public opinion were that powerful, in which case there would probably never have been another attack on Iraq.

          2. Tringle

            Re: TRAITORS@ I ain't Spartacus

            Bear in mind that an Israeli Air Force General, when asked 'how far would you go to stop the Iranian nuclear programme?' answered 'about 3000 miles'.

            You are conflating the intelligence community with political ambition. Even if there had been no intelligence whatsoever about Sadam Hussein's regime (and let's face it, what little there was was made up by politicians and their shills), Bush and Blair would still have gone to war on some pretext or other.

            As H L Mencken said "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." It's the politicians you need to fear, not GCHQ or the NSA. Damaging the latter does us no service whatsoever. When the next undetected Islamist attack kills dozens of innocents, think about how you wanted to disable the intelligence gatherers. Snowden is a traitor of historic importance, but the intelligence community will recover. The dead from the next downed plane, or eviscerated train or bus won't.

          3. Alan Brown Silver badge

            Re: TRAITORS@ I ain't Spartacus

            "The interesting thing is that despite the lack of public support for all of these actual or potential interventions, there is clearly an influential constituency who are keen on war and foreign intervention."

            It's worth listening to the Dead Kennedys "Kinky sex makes the world go around" - the track is 35 years old but still devastatingly on point.

            "The companies think it's time we all got together, sat down and had another war"

          4. Psyx

            Re: TRAITORS@ I ain't Spartacus

            "If you recall, Saddam supposedly had WMD, and it all turned out to be a load of old c**k."

            The people he mustard gassed would disagree.

            That Saddam had such things is not really a matter of debate. That he'd got rid of them by the time we looked and that it was a shit-ridden excuse for Blair to launch a crusade are also true.

        3. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: TRAITORS

          "But we had no political intel, to tell us he'd apparently decided it wasn't worth it and had got rid of it"

          A part from Hans Blix and a team of UN inspectors who spent three years seaching for WMD (that, aparently, could be deployed in 30mins on the battlefield, the lie that was used as a pretense for the illegal war on Iraq) , but don't let truth get in the way of your argument.

        4. RobHib
          Meh

          Re: TRAITORS — @ I ain't Spartacus

          "And I'm perfectly happy for that to include allies like Angela Merkel."

          Perhaps you're right. Irrespective, I reckon these Snowden (and associated ) revelations are of such an extent that they've the power to shock even the complacent into action in ways that The Secret State and similar revelations were never able to do.

          Furthermore, with the enormous proliferation of smartphones worldwide, millions are now aware they're being snooped upon by their governments—and even if they're as innocent and white as newly-fallen snow, they're left with nasty feelings of their privacy having been violated.

          This could change the ballgame altogether. In the past, people never responded to the The Secret State and such revelations so emphatically as they have now done here; back then these matters were more abstract, now they're immediate, up-close and personal. The CERN scientists' newly and promptly developed encrypted email based in Switzerland is likely only the beginning of considerable research and development in obfuscating communications.

          Currently, the 'weakness' in mail is that interception is easy, as the source and destination addresses are known or can be readily determined—certainly so with IP addresses (with snail-mail knowing the source may be more problematic but the destination is usually clear). Even if mail is encrypted, its metadata is abundantly clear (and thus useful to interceptors).

          As I've mentioned in previous posts on similar matters, it seems to me there'll not only be considerable research into encrypted email that's easily used but also in ways of bringing stenography back into the main stream. However, stenography isn't as easy as it seems. Data that's obfuscating messages can be statistically analysed which reveals the presence of messages even if they're not able to be decrypted and the metadata (sender/receiver's ID etc.) may indicate reasons for intent to obfuscate.

          To get around the metadata problem, any modern form of stenography would have to obfuscate both source and destination addresses. I've little idea how this would be achieved except to say that it would perhaps have to involve the 'smearing' of addresses over multitudes of servers combined with say breaks in the communications chain—by say inserting wireless links into cable/fibre paths to disrupt directly-traceable routes. (Radio circuits would enable source and destination to appear at different virtual locations other than actual real ones. If a fuzzy distributed system that used smartphone wireless connections were ever conceived then tracing source and destination would be a nightmare if nigh on impossible.)

          If heavy-duty research into such methods hasn't already begun then I'd be mightily surprised.

          1. tom dial Silver badge

            Re: TRAITORS — @ I ain't Spartacus

            "The Secret State"? Presumably the book by Peter Hennessey; a reference would have been helpful.

            ProtonMail may be good, but is new and untried (and temporarily deferring new accounts due to demand). It is not clear how (or if) they are solving the metadata problem, although they hint at it.

            Presumably you mean steganography, the art of concealing a secret message in a plaintext one rather than stenography, the taking of shorthand dictation.

          2. Alan Brown Silver badge

            Re: TRAITORS — @ I ain't Spartacus

            "Data that's obfuscating messages can be statistically analysed which reveals the presence of messages even if they're not able to be decrypted and the metadata (sender/receiver's ID etc.) may indicate reasons for intent to obfuscate."

            Inspection of all those 1990s usenet gifs of Claudia Schiffer may prove somewhat interesting....

        5. John Smith 19 Gold badge
          Gimp

          Re: TRAITORS

          "Not that I'm defending reading ordinary peoples' mail. But spying on foriegn governments is what we have intelligence services for. And I'm perfectly happy for that to include allies like Angela Merkel. The German government's position on various global and European issues is vital to British national interests. And no nation with a foreign intelligence service itself has any right to complain too much when it gets spied on. Well the game is, you complain loudly for a bit, for appearances, and maybe get some concessions, then go back to business as usual."

          If only.

          The whole point about this saga is it's indiscriminate spying on everyone, all the time.

          That's not "targeted intelligence gathering," that's data fetishism.

      2. DavCrav Silver badge

        Re: TRAITORS

        "To be honest, if it's on The Register, then it's hardly top secret any more."

        Agreeing or disagreeing with anything else in the story, that isn't a good argument. It's rather like a whistleblower's defence being "well, now I've told everyone, it's not secret any more, hence it's fine." There might be other defences, but this isn't one of them.

        1. RobHib

          Re: TRAITORS - - @ DavCrav

          "... that isn't a good argument."

          Right, the argument is logically correct but that's not the real point!

          What's significant and key is that the citizenry's trust in its governance and belief in democracy is low and continues to fall*. That even the act of surveillance is made covert by The State (rather than just its substance) is further aiding and abetting that belief/perception.

          __

          * Just tally the up/down votes on this story/posts alone and there's little doubt as to the truth of this statement. Even with the wildly anarchical tendencies of many El Reg readers, the stats are too strong to fudge. The figures are too strong to conclude otherwise for the general population.

    4. K
      Joke

      Re: TRAITORS

      Luke 11, What is your problem? Is your cushy job at GCHQ now under threat ..

      1. This post has been deleted by a moderator

      2. GrumpyMiddleAgedGuy

        Re: TRAITORS

        As someone who only just avoided being blown up on 7/7, I'm not particularly impressed by the publication of these details. Terrorism is a real danger and its childish to pretend that GCHQ and NSA are the real enemy.

        Next time a train or plane is blown up, and there is a very good chance there will be a next time, I hope those who have supported these leaks feel comfortable with themselves. Apparently targeted individuals have changed their behaviour, making it much harder to track them.

        1. Vic

          Re: TRAITORS

          Apparently targeted individuals have changed their behaviour, making it much harder to track them.

          If such individuals could be tracked and prevented from committing their atrocities prior to these revelations, how come we didn't do so?

          There are two possible explanations - at least one of which is inescapable :-

          - Our security services are actually staffed by people dimmer than those we are trying to catch

          - All this surveillance has no effect on catching bad guys.

          We've heard lots of bluster from "anti-terrorist" groups on both sides of the Atlantic about how fabulously the whole thing works, but when pushed to provide details of a *single* atrocity that's been prevented, there is much navel-gazing and shuffling of feet...

          The prevention of terrorism is best achieved by communities watching themselves - and that does not happen when said community does not feel any affection for the State. So all this mass-snooping actually makes terrorism more likely, not less so.

          Vic.

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: TRAITORS

      Hanged, not "hung". Meat is hung by the butcher. People are hanged by an executioner (or mob).

      1. Shrimpling

        Re: hung/hanged

        I would rather be well hung than well hanged.

        1. Bloakey1

          Re: hung/hanged

          Whoops, you got there first apologies.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: hung/hanged

          "I would rather be well hung than well hanged".

          Unless you're a deer or a partridge, of course.

      2. Ben Bonsall

        Re: TRAITORS

        Re: hanged/hung, there's really no difference, they've always been used interchangably.

        But I believe mobs 'lynch' :)

      3. Vic
        Joke

        Re: TRAITORS

        > Hanged, not "hung"

        Hence the pub argument :-

        "You should be bloody well hung!"

        "I bloody well am!"

        Vic.

      4. Bloakey1

        Re: TRAITORS

        "Hanged, not "hung". Meat is hung by the butcher. People are hanged by an executioner (or mob)."

        Agreed although my young lady tells me that a man who has been hanged may also be well hung!

        Tempora, hmmmm, brings to mind operation Tempura.

        1. TheOtherHobbes

          Re: TRAITORS

          >Meat is hung by the butcher. People are hanged by an executioner (or mob).

          See also, the difference between a hung parliament and a hanged parliament.

          1. Scroticus Canis
            Terminator

            Re: TRAITORS - "hung parliament and a hanged parliament"

            With the current bunch of oxygen thieves my preference is for the latter.

          2. bpfh Silver badge

            Re: TRAITORS

            > See also, the difference between a hung parliament and a hanged parliament.

            One is a annoyance, and the other is a Good Thing?

            By the way, is anyone voting for the "put them all up against the wall and shoot them party" in the next elections ?

      5. Desidero

        Re: TRAITORS

        Well-hung porn stars are occasionally butchered if it's a snuff film.

        I'm still trying to get my head (the one on shoulders) around "extra-martial affairs". If it were a well-hung extra-martian affair, we'd have an intergalactic incident on our hands.

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