back to article All roads in US cable biz GTT's Brit network seem to lead to Menwith Hill

A curious thing happens when you look at a map of fibre-optic cables – most of the UK section of American cable operator GTT's network appears to link the NSA spy station at Menwith Hill in Yorkshire with continental Europe. Thanks to the diligent efforts of Alan Turnbull at secret-bases.co.uk, The Register can point the …

  1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    They all seem to lead to Blackpool as well. Is this some secret plan to influence ERNIE and control who wins the Premium Bonds? Or are they stealing our random numbers for some other nefarious purpose?

    There's also a very suspicious connection to Brussels as well. Who's listening to whom?

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Apparently, everyone is listening to everyone.

      Except politicians. They are listening only to those who pay them.

      1. Paul 33
        Thumb Down

        Re: Except Politicians

        Nope, they are most certainly not listening to the tax-payers.

        Oh, you mean the brown paper bag left on the table after the meeting, well, no-one needs to know about that, certainly not those pesky types that work for No. 11.

    2. wyatt

      That might be this:

      https://www.theregister.co.uk/2019/03/11/southport_cable_landing_station_wide_open/

    3. JimboSmith Silver badge

      Oh come on I mean It's not like they're the only game in town when it comes to cables going into the base. BT have got cables running into Menwith Hill carrying 100,000 telephone calls concurrently. Nor that (in the late 90's) they'd admit to this and send evidence and their then head of emergency planning (as a witness) to court and admit this. The case was an appeal by two convicted female trespassers into the American Spy base. BT had to send another solicitor to withdraw evidence submitted and shut up their own witness. That fiasco earned a rebuke for the company and the witness from the judge who said:

      "If I had a burglar alarm system, I would now think twice about having it operated by BT"

    4. jake Silver badge

      Correct me if I'm wrong, but ...

      ... from here, all of them seem to lead to London.

  2. Locky Silver badge

    As I only live a few miles from The Hill...

    Can GTT please throw some fiber connectivity my way? BT have been failing to do so for years

    They can snoop on Mrs Locky's cat video habit as much as they want

    1. silks

      Re: As I only live a few miles from The Hill...

      I live only a few miles away also, Menwith Hill just applied for planning permission for a couple of new radomes (golf balls). Can't imagine that planning will be refused!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: As I only live a few miles from The Hill...

        If we ever get an invasion of giant golf playing aliens they would be in so much trouble..

        OK, who dosed my coffee?

        :)

        1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

          Re: As I only live a few miles from The Hill...

          Capitol, or Mt Weather?

          But Aliens.. So one image is labelled-

          Verizon UK's Central London Data Centre next to a major rail network hub

          aka 'UK5*'. Also located next to what is/was London's centre for 'tropical' diseases. So it's a simple biosecurity measure. Check your appendages via video link oop North, and if they're oozing a bit funny, see the docs, do not get on the train.. Alternatively, a different clinic, because when that datacentre was built, it was easy to collect diseases around the back of King's Cross. But pre-gentrification, it was cheap-ish real-estate and conveniently located for picking up Racal Telecom/ex-BRT fibre that made up a lot of the UK's backbones at the time, and followed the rail network.

          UK2 was also interesting because that was very close to St John's Gate, home of the Knight's Hospitaller, who were of course related to the Templars. Discovering that museum made for an fascinating, if slightly extended lunch break. AFAIK, they didn't have fibre, or maybe I just wasn't cleared for that customer..

          Rest I think demonstrates how easy it is to create conspiracy by proximity, and overlook telecomms fundamentals. Like UK is an island, so connects to the RoW via submarine cables that have to land somewhere, and then be fed from somewhere else. And then connect to somewhere the BD people think they've got customers, which means amp/regen/interconnect sites along the way, which means finding cheap land/buildings without PITA wayleave restrictions to create those sites.. Which is/was Virgin's challenge, ie finding cheap places to PoP for headends and other stuff and keep real estate costs & rates down.

          (rates being a large part of that given rateable values applied to 'improved' sites, plus the fibres feeding them, which could make a disused public toilet into a large cost)

          The larger security issue is the availability of sensitive stuff like KMZ files plotting fibre routes accurately, which customers would insist on, even though it made their services less secure/reliable.

          *I've been lost in that building several times. On the plus side, their security people were on the ball and monitoring their CCTVs :)

          1. Norman Nescio Silver badge

            Re: As I only live a few miles from The Hill...

            The larger security issue is the availability of sensitive stuff like KMZ files plotting fibre routes accurately, which customers would insist on, even though it made their services less secure/reliable.

            And knowing the exact route doesn't help the customer much, as the first time there is an outage or re-grooming, the path between major nodes changes. There is some benefit to knowing the routes of the 'last-mile' fibres, but unless you have explicitly decided to forego the benefits of automatic re-routing in case of failure, having a KMZ file of the path your data happens to be going down now is of little to no use, unless it is printed out on soft, absorbent paper.

            Switching of paths on an optical network is routine, and done before protocols like BGP have put their shoes on. It is also often more hassle than it is worth to switch paths back after a fault has been cleared, unless you have mucked up your capacity planning and need to move stuff around to ensure you have the headroom to cope with the next unplanned outage. Some customers notice switching events by noticing the packet loss events and are somewhat insistent on getting as close as possible to zero packet loss, so elective switching is frowned upon.

            Anyone who believes the fairy story that buying capacity from two different providers ensures your traffic goes down different paths is living in la-la-land. It is not unusual for both providers to buy capacity form the same third party, and so on (it is turtles all the way down). Buy from a single supplier, and press them hard to assure that their service is sufficiently resilient; or buy dark fibre on a known path, without switching, and light it up yourself. You are then responsible for your own resilience. Good luck.

            NN

            1. donk1

              Re: As I only live a few miles from The Hill...

              I thought that BT and Virgin Media were the only 2 providers which run cables to your house...

              1. hopkinse

                Re: As I only live a few miles from The Hill...

                There are a whole bunch of newcomers. In Central Scotland Cityfibre are filling the gaps where NTL/Virgin gave up in the 90s.

              2. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: As I only live a few miles from The Hill...

                No, there are dozens. Some only cover very limited geographies and some will charge a business rate to do it, but there is a lot of choice.

            2. Jellied Eel Silver badge

              Re: As I only live a few miles from The Hill...

              Anyone who believes the fairy story that buying capacity from two different providers ensures your traffic goes down different paths is living in la-la-land. It is not unusual for both providers to buy capacity form the same third party, and so on (it is turtles all the way down).

              Indeed. Buy a service based on the service description, and the SLA. If you want diversity (aka route seperation), then buy a service that offers it. Some are even regulated, ie BT and a minimum 3m seperation along the entire path.. But that can result in some eyewatering excess construction charges.

              Otherwise it's like you say, and play pot luck. Unless you're renting a specifically defined path, circuits can and will usually get regroomed, negating any diversity/seperacy.. Which is going to be.. fun for GTT and their customers given GTT's acquisition spree, and large presence in the wholesale capacity market. Integrating and optimising all those networks will be keeping their planners/designers & ops people busy for a while yet.

          2. Paul Stimpson

            Re: As I only live a few miles from The Hill...

            "Verizon UK's Central London Data Centre next to a major rail network hub"

            This isn't much of a surprise to me. Before privatization, a British Rail communications engineer told me that they had the 2nd largest telecoms network in the country. Lots of lovely straightish lines between major population centres that cables could be neatly buried beside. Selling dark fibre space to the likes of Verizon would seem to be a nice little earner for them.

      2. JimboSmith Silver badge

        Re: As I only live a few miles from The Hill...

        I lived in Devon in my youth and met a very nice bloke in the pub one night who'd moved just up the coast from the Bude area. He said the GCHQ station was "Paid for by the Yanks". He'd applied for a job there and didn't get it. He thought probably because his grandfather had briefly joined the communist party. Told me that there was a secret HF listening station further into Cornwall. I now know this was Penhale Sands.

    2. TXITMAN

      Re: As I only live a few miles from The Hill...

      Aren't you lucky to have a full backup of your electronic communications!

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Hastings

    The cable leaving between Brighton and Hastings looks to exactly follow the route of the old U.K. - France 1 and 2 coax FDM systems, from Eastbourne to St-Valery-Sur-Somme.

    Anonymous because...

    1. niksgarage

      Re: Hastings

      You THINK you're anonymous, but those awfully nice chaps in NSA know who you are, unless you are hiding behind a VPN that doesn't itself channel all of your traffic via another outpost.

      1. TXITMAN

        Re: Hastings

        At this point you should expect that there is a team that infiltrates any VPN provider.

  4. bungle42
    Big Brother

    I Remember the Early Days of Menwith Hill

    I grew up in Harrogate during the late 70's & early 80's and we would often drive past the Menwith Hill site to visit relatives who lived a few miles away in Pately Bridge. My Uncle would often comment about how the height of the land was continuously increasing along the road to Dacre as the underground complex was being expanded. I believe that the site was originally setup as an early warning station against missile attacks from the USSR but that purpose faded with the end of the Cold War so a new purpose needed to be found. Something that I remember from back then was that a cable trench was dug between Menwith Hill and Hunters Stone about 5 miles to the west. Why Hunters Stone? well that was a microwave tower that relayed all the phone calls and faxes up and down the UK. It was common knowledge at the time that the underground computers would scan all the calls and faxes for key words which caused the content to be set aside for further analysis. Over the years the number of Radomes has steadily increased which I understand are used to tap into satellite downlinks across Europe. The Radomes prevent you from seeing which direction the dish is pointing which could be used to determine which satellite was being monitored. With the advent of fibre connections and thousands of satellite channels I can't even begin to imagine how much data this place is processing and forwarding on to the Five Eyes partners.

    1. silks

      Re: I Remember the Early Days of Menwith Hill

      The Hunters Stones BT tower is still there but not sure if it as many / any microwave dishes attached these days.

    2. phuzz Silver badge

      Re: I Remember the Early Days of Menwith Hill

      "The Radomes prevent you from seeing which direction the dish is pointing"

      They also protect the dish from the wind and weather, which is why they're used even in non-secret satellite downlinks.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I Remember the Early Days of Menwith Hill

      It was common knowledge at the time that the underground computers would scan all the calls and faxes for key words which caused the content to be set aside for further analysis

      That was, as you say in the 70s/80s, but it sounds very much like what Snowden was talking about in more recent years. I don't understand why everyone got so het up about the Snowden thing when it was already public knowledge.

      Not trolling, just genuine curiosity

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: I Remember the Early Days of Menwith Hill

        Reminds me of the old joke:

        Q: What's GCHQ's fax number?

        A: Doesn't matter, just send it.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: I Remember the Early Days of Menwith Hill

        SOME of the Snowden stuff was public knowledge however most of it certainly wasn't...and I'm going to leave it at that.

        1. eldakka Silver badge

          Re: I Remember the Early Days of Menwith Hill

          Not to mention that most of it was public rumour or logical conclusions based on scant information, not really knowledge. Snowden confirmed a lot of rumours/suspicions, elevating them up from fringe conspiracy theories to solid public knowledge.

    4. Paul 33

      Re: I Remember the Early Days of Menwith Hill

      It's the NSA,

      I suspect they are only passing what they want the 5 eyes partners to know, so about 5GB a month.

      Full sharing only goes one way.

    5. David Shaw

      Re: I Remember the Early Days of Menwith Hill

      the old COMINT system was UKUSA (1947 agreements online somewhere) which morphed into 'keyword-driven' ECHELON "E" based at Menwith since 1954 compulsory purchased farms (according to open published parliamentary reports) with five-eyes running it, UK, CAN, NZ, AUS as 'junior' partners

      later "E" went for global take 99.9999% of world telecom traffic, from around 1966 when focus was taken from just the Soviet threat...France later was a bit miffed about economic atacks of this spookery (Thomson-CSF/Brazil deal that was undercut, Airbus etc) , also Germany (see Enercon/Kenetech wind-turbine design as examples that might well be "E") ...

      ...which hence morphed into the current tiered-partner agreements with (matrix of many many partners) getting more or less of the full-take (according to Snowden's docus) depending on reciprocal sharing etc etc

      The whole BT network was admitted in court in the 1970's to be plumbed directly into & through the National Security Agency Field Station F-83 , though the BT engineer said he'd introduced the maps by mistake, and could he have them back please!

      The BT YHTS Hunter’s Stones in Stainburn forest is absurdly used by internetters as a geocache location, whilst the next hop along YTIL Tinshill, North Leeds, looks very crumbly as the atomic blast resistant concrete tower is succumbing now to decades of Yorkshire rain.

      (Duncan Cambell has written well about this overtake, over collect, over the years. However, I'm sure it is all legal nowadays, and sovereign governments can do whatever they like)

      1. JimboSmith Silver badge

        Re: I Remember the Early Days of Menwith Hill

        If BT admitted it in court in the 70's then they did the exact same thing in the 90's. See my post above for more info and a link to the court case.

    6. Arthur the cat Silver badge
      Black Helicopters

      Re: I Remember the Early Days of Menwith Hill

      It was common knowledge at the time that the underground computers would scan all the calls and faxes for key words which caused the content to be set aside for further analysis

      Hence the emacs command M-x spook for adding a little extra something to email/netnews.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Fibre provider provides fibre

    So the shocking news here is that a major national fibre infrastructure company operates fibre connections?

    Where would you expect spy centres to source their fibre connections from? The internet fairy?

    1. mpentler

      Re: Fibre provider provides fibre

      Yeah, I am not sure this story is really worth it. Of course the cables go between major access points and to large areas.

      1. NightFox

        Re: Fibre provider provides fibre

        Agree - so the big story here is that a node on a network is connected to all other nodes on the network?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Fibre provider provides fibre

          I think you're all missing the point. The clear implication of the story is that NSA are able to easily tap into the internet directly thanks to the special diversion of the GTT fibre optic through Menwith Hill's cable relay station. Study the Infrapedia.com mapping closely. It is astonishing what detail it reveals.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So, I know some people who used to work as 'civil servants in Cheltenham'*, and although they obviously work closely with the NSA, there seemed to be a certain amount of rivalry. This was most evident in the glee in which I was told about the "British bunnies" that had gnawed through many of the cables at Menwith hill, because the yanks hadn't though to run them in trenches.

    * (ie GCHQ)

  7. don't you hate it when you lose your account Bronze badge

    Played against their rugby team

    But that was many years ago, we had to submit a team list for vetting, I had a bit of a problem as as a lad I was the treasurer of a local youth CND. Their team were crap.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    One law for us

    "Menwith Hill is used by the NSA to evade American laws intended to fit a choke collar around the spy agency's doings."

    So US folk please correct me if I'm wrong, but:

    If you're a US citizen it doesn't matter where you are in the world, the IRS will still catch up with you?

    But if you're a government spy you can do whatever you like as long as you're not on US soil?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: One law for us

      My understanding is that the law prevents US intelligence agents spying on US citizens. RAF Menwith Hill (the "RAF" part of the designation is important here) strictly speaking isn't a US government establishment, it's British, and so can gather data on US citizens. Nothing in law prevents US intelligence agents acting on data provided to it by a foreign power.

      ....or something like that.

      (and I believe there's some sort of reciprocal arrangement available for UK to get info on UK subjects from the US)

      1. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
        Joke

        Re: One law for us

        "and I believe there's some sort of reciprocal arrangement available for UK to get info on UK subjects from the US"

        Most probably a UK spook leaves a file of stuff with interest to a US spook in the back of the car in the parking lot with the car unlocked. When UK spook comes back, in place of the original file is another file with stuff of interest to UK spook gathered by the US spook.

      2. phuzz Silver badge

        Re: One law for us

        "I believe there's some sort of reciprocal arrangement available for UK to get info on UK subjects from the US"

        AFAIK there's nothing stopping them from spying on UK citizens. It's only UK politicians who are off limits to UK spooks.

    2. Marketing Hack Silver badge
      Headmaster

      Re: One law for us

      Yes, the CIA/NSA/Defense Intelligence Agency are (alledgedly) not allowed to gather intelligence on American citizen's activities at home in America. Domestic intelligence is the remit of the FBI/DEA/your local police However, if you are an American citizen in the U.S. but communicating overseas for whatever reason, then those communications and (supposedly) only those communications can be hoovered up by our brave boys and girls in foreign intelligence.

      These days the lines have been intentionally blurred by grasping idjits who think things like "Wow! We've built this great infrastructure for snarfling up the communications of obviously devious foreigners. Imagine the good it would do if we aimed that at our own people!"

      1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

        Re: One law for us

        These days the lines have been intentionally blurred by grasping idjits who think things like "Wow! We've built this great infrastructure for snarfling up the communications of obviously devious foreigners. Imagine the good it would do if we aimed that at our own people!"

        No real need to build anything other than your intranets. For everything else, there's Siri, Alexa, Skype etc. It's a funny old world where the TLAs have to jump through hoops to bug a property, and the commercial intelligence gathering agencies just use marketing to sell their own bugs.. And can even provide transcripts of private phone calls. It's outsourcing gorn mad I tell you!

        (also curious if Skype's transcription service notifies all parties on a call that their conversation will be recorded.)

  9. Marketing Hack Silver badge
    Go

    "Virgin Media has taken to skulking in public toilets as part of its effort to push fibre"

    Well, if you consume a lot of fiber, you'd spend a lot of time in public toilets too!

    1. Alister Silver badge

      Re: "Virgin Media has taken to skulking in public toilets as part of its effort to push fibre"

      I remember back in the early eighties working for the GPO telephones (just before it became British Telecom) in the long since demolished Art-Deco Derby bus station.

      One of the main distribution boxes for all the telephone cabling was strategically located on the inside back wall of the Ladies toilets, near the ceiling, which required step-ladder access to reach it.

      I was tasked to terminate a new 20-pair cable into it - which was obviously not a five-minute job! - but they chose not to close the ladies loos, so instead there was a female member of staff playing chaperone, and every time someone wanted to use the toilet, I had to climb off the step ladder and wait outside...

      Took me bloody days...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: "Virgin Media has taken to skulking in public toilets as part of its effort to push fibre"

        Not just the bus station, any interesting bit of recent architecture soon gets destroyed in Derby, e.g. the clock at "The Spot"

  10. TXITMAN

    They spy on us we spy on them

    They spy on our citizens and we spy on their citizens. Results are shared all around.

    1. Danny 2 Silver badge

      Re: They spy on us we spy on them

      Are you Dutch? That is an old Dutch saying.

      It honestly makes little sense in the UK. They spy on us and we have no idea who they are or how they are spying on us.

      I mean, it is a nice idea, but the spying and tech bias tends heavily to the state.

  11. TXITMAN

    This reminds me of 1990

    Back around the time that HTML was being developed a USSS agent just happened to show up at our radio club meeting. Several of us were were using IRC to discuss frequencies and listening to certain government users. I figure that he came to the meeting to get our license plate numbers and whatever info we revealed. So for a very long time US Citizens have been monitored directly, have no doubt.

  12. Danny 2 Silver badge

    I was arrested at Menwith Hill at the Independence From America demo over a decade ago. The Guardian called me an ingenious young man, one third correct. Undercover PC Lynne Watson had chatted me up to join my ironically 'unarrestable' group. I think I was the first male to be the subject of a female police seduction this century- Readers, she failed.

    Great to see El Reg covering this! Beware of plain boring women trying to seduce you.

    It was the one time in my life I ever had to beg, for 20p for a phone call, and I was homeless for ages. I was in Leeds and the police arrested me and released without charge in York. Not adjacent! Not effing close.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      There have been so many demos there (to zero effect), a major one I attended there was more like 2 decades ago, & obviously Lindis & others were actively protesting long before that.

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