You may well ask but, just maybe, the clue gave it away, for this is the stuff of surveillance and secrecy on Cornwall’s very doorstep. From virtually any beach or highpoint in Bude, your line of vision is invariably drawn to the alarming, yet beguiling, white satellite saucers near Morwenstow, and therein lies the connection, for Professor Richard Aldrich is the author of “GCHQ: The Uncensored Story of Britains’s Most Secret Intelligence Agency” which makes a detailed read.
GCHQ Morwenstow, sorry now GCHQ Bude, is situated on the North Cornwall coast between Morwenstow and Coombe, and despite having a ride out there, it is not that easy to find down those winding lanes, even with satnav. Once near, high security fences and CCTV cameras keep you very much out of the classified intelligence gathering site anyway, so it’s hard to tell much just by looking at the place. Finding out more requires meticulous research of the kind Richard Aldrich is renowned for. The station comprises the familiar sight of 21 satellite antennae and dishes. Interestingly, the Cornwall Guide, aimed at attracting tourists, makes no mention of GCHQ at Morwenstow/Bude (like you could miss it) preferring to focus on the eccentric opium-smoking reverend of yesteryear, Reverend Hawker…… but then nor does it mention the three wind turbines which mark the landscape.….Morwenstow, it seems, has it all!
The GCHQ building is a listening station, so paranoia started to set in as I did my Google searches to find out more about it. Would too many GCHQ Bude searches put me on a world’s most wanted list? Rather disappointingly, the only indication I got of any change at all were pop-ups offering to check my credit rating while suggesting I simultaneously play online poker, delightfully ironic. That said, something felt strange as I don’t normally experience pop-ups and haven’t done again since! And they did get in the way of my searches. Only one thing is certain about the place: you can always get a thoroughly decent mobile phone signal at Morwenstow, which never seems to happen elsewhere around Bude.
Professor Aldrich suggests that 21st century intelligence is gathered by looking at ‘core data’, which means it is less about content than to whom, where and when a message is sent , perhaps what is now being termed metadata.
As he explains: “No one person can read 2.8 million emails a second. What do you do with all that stuff to ensure that the single email that contains vital intelligence ends up on the Prime Minister’s desk in real time?” Good point.
Controversially, there have been accusations that individual privacy may be compromised by such surveillance activities but there has been remarkably little concern actually expressed by Joe Public, only by groups acting on Joe’s behalf, such as, amazingly, the EU.
Living in an age of public information sharing online through Facebook and Twitter, perhaps privacy is less important to us than it used to be. According to an interview conducted by The Birmingham Post, it seems that Professor Aldrich who is obviously more in the know about such things than most of us, wanted to ensure privacy when writing his book. He thus used a “dumb laptop”, unconnected to the internet, which is unthinkable for most people requiring 24/7 access to the www to be ‘in touch’ or ‘connected’ at whim. Britain, it seems, sent over 30 billion texts (no, it wasn’t all down to me!) last year, any of which could be intercepted, and who can resist a quick tweet? Perhaps worryingly, today’s digital natives are seemingly unconcerned about putting their personal details online, unless, perhaps they really do have something to hide.
So, should we be concerned that the Government may potentially know so much about us? Or should we be equally concerned that Google does? Or Tesco? Or the man or woman down the road? Do we care? We probably should because you can find out an awful lot about someone, if you’ve a mind to, from your desk. The sheer volume of public material out there is a double-edged sword, according to Richard Aldrich, offering great opportunities for surveillance but also providing a real challenge to intelligence – gathering through its sheer volume. And it is the sheer pace of changing technology, and how GCHQ deals with it, which adds extra interest to the subject.
It seems that here in beautiful Bude, we have one of the UK’s three main intelligence agencies (the others being MI5 and MI6). The Bude GCHQ can theoretically cover all major frequency bands, and casts its net wide; it has more recently been insinuated in intelligence gathering re Wikileaks, according to the Secret Bases website. The EU once expressed concern that it may have been engaged in industrial espionage, and did what one always does in such situations, commissioned a report which is fascinating reading, really (well, in parts). Here’s an aerial photo link………and another.
What do we know? Very little, it seems, which is why Professor Richard Aldrich’s makes for some fascinating reading for all who live in and around the area, treated to a daily sighting of GCHQ Bude, or for those who just want to know what’s going on in those secret spaces.
But, more recently, whistleblower Edward Snowden, has shared some articles with the Guardian which suggest a somewhat more sinister shift. For GCHQ has been collecting vast quantities of internet browsing histories, calls, global emails and Facebook posts, and sharing them with NSA (National Security Agency) in USA, in what has been deemed “the largest programme of suspicionless surveillance in human history”.
For these huge volumes of data drawn from fibre optic cables and stored for up to 30 days, have processed communications not only of targeted suspects but also of totally innocent people. Yes, that could be you or me, folks….
So, suspicion-less surveillance seems to be part of our daily lives and moreover, the UK prides itself on its data gathering abilities. As the Guardian piece says:
“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”.
which is not a little worrying, especially given the bad press the USA has received recently about its surveillance tactics,
Not only that, but the access to the data is not limited to a few high ranking officials. No, Sirree, “The Guardian understands that a total of 850,000 NSA employees and US private contractors with top secret clearance had access to GCHQ databases”.
However, we are a little reassured that while all our communications may be gathered, most will be destroyed, eventually:
The source said that although GCHQ was collecting a “vast haystack of data” what they were looking for was “needles”.
“Essentially, we have a process that allows us to select a small number of needles in a haystack. We are not looking at every piece of straw. There are certain triggers that allow you to discard or not examine a lot of data so you are just looking at needles. If you had the impression we are reading millions of emails, we are not. There is no intention in this whole programme to use it for looking at UK domestic traffic – British people talking to each other,”
the source said, which rather confirms Richard Aldrich’s view that the resources are simply not there for national surveillance of everyone.
But it all feels very Big Brother in this brave new technological world…..and we at least now know for sure that the technology is there to gather whatever information Governments please, and our record appears worse than the US in this. “It’s not just a US problem. The UK has a huge dog in this fight,” Snowden told the Guardian. “They [GCHQ] are worse than the US.”
- GCHQ taps fibre-optic cables for secret access to world’s communications (guardian.co.uk)
- Mastering the internet: how GCHQ set out to spy on the world wide web (guardian.co.uk)
- Britain’s Spy Agency Taps Fibre-optic Cables for Secret Access to World’s Communications (counterinformation.wordpress.com)
- GCHQ taps fibre-optic cables for secret access to world’s communications (thetruthseeker.co.uk)
- UK’s Top Spy Agency Now Exposed for Tapping Global Communications (goldenageofgaia.com)
- GCHQ – We are all suspects now (lawblogone.wordpress.com)
- New Edward Snowden Revelation: British Spy Agency Tapping Into Fiber Cables, Mining Phone, Email Data (patdollard.com)