7 November 2013
Cyprus: UK-US Middle East Internet Spying
Thanks to the authors.
Cyprus: the home of British/American Internet surveillance in the Middle
di Nicky Hager e Stefania Maurizi
British and US Internet surveillance in the Middle East and surrounding regions
occurs from a secret base on the island of Cyprus, as l'Espresso, the German
daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung, the Greek daily Ta Nea
and the Greek channel AlphaTV can reveal. The country only has
a million citizens and is a small player in world affairs, but it is a key
site for the mass surveillance systems revealed by US whistleblower Edward
The Middle Eastern surveillance hub has remained unidentified in Snowden
revelations until now. The Guardian newspaper, which first received the Snowden
leaks, said British Internet spying operations were run from two British
sites and a location abroad, which the Guardian will not identify.
The UK Independent newspaper also described a secret Internet monitoring
station in the Middle East intercepting vast quantities of e-mails,
phone calls and web traffic carried on underwater fibre-optic cables passing
through the area -- but also declined to reveal the location.
The secret location is Cyprus, the 240km long island in the eastern
Mediterranean. When Britain granted Mediterranean independence in 1960, Britain
retained two large military bases, now home to the most important overseas
spying operations of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).
This news comes amidst growing anger in Germany and other Western European
countries at large-scale US and British surveillance of their citizens and
political leaders. Britain faces pressure to stop spying on its European
neighbours on behalf of the US intelligence agencies.
The surveillance is also a very controversial issue for the Cyprus Government.
It relies on the secrecy of the British spying operations to avoid having
to explain to neighbouring countries why British and US intelligence agencies
spy on them from bases on Cypriot territory.
The Internet monitoring occurs at the Ayios Nikolaos intelligence station,
part of Britains Eastern Sovereign Base Area. It is possible to see
the top secret intelligence base on Google Earth (here): a cluster of operations
buildings, several eavesdropping satellite dishes and nearby a large circular
radio direction-finding antenna system, a tell-tale sign of signals intelligence
The targets of the Cyprus intelligence operations will typically include
the government leaders in all the surrounding countries and other senior
public, business and military leaders. Following the pattern of British and
US spying in other regions, it will also include United Nations agencies,
trade organisations, private companies, police forces, militaries and political
British intelligence documents leaked by Snowden reveal a GCHQ project with
the extravagant name Mastery of the Internet. According to the
Guardian, a programme called Tempora allows GCHQ to tap into
Internet cables passing over UK territory, intercepting hundreds of gigabytes
of Internet data every second. This includes websites visited, e-mails, instant
messages, calls and passwords. The documents say Britain currently does more
Internet monitoring even than the US National Security Agency (NSA). Personal
data available to GCHQ from Internet and mobile traffic had increased 7000%
in five years.
A large component of this Internet surveillance is occurring in Cyprus. Among
the thousands of documents Snowden copied before he left his intelligence
job and became a whistleblower is an obscure GCHQ document containing the
clue about GCHQs Internet surveillance location abroad.
It was passed by Snowden to the Washington Post and published last month.
The 2012 report is about Internet surveillance, including a project called
Mullenize It says the Internet surveillance work occurs at three locations
and involves a lot of hard work by some committed individuals.
The Internet surveillance staff are based at Benhall, Bude and
Sounder. These correspond to the three Internet surveillance locations
mentioned by the Guardian: the GCHQs headquarters, its station in Bude
and the unidentified location abroad.
Benhall is the address of the GCHQ headquarters and Bude the main British
interception station in Cornwall. The third location, Sounder,
is a tightly held secret, but it turns out to be a confidential intelligence
agency name for operations in Cyprus.
The name Sounder had been mentioned in the diary of former NSA head General
William Odom and was discovered in Odoms archived papers by US intelligence
writer Matthew Aid. The diary recorded a 1988 discussion between Odom and
GCHQ director Peter Marychurch that noted Sounder was in Cyprus and said
that NSA will share part of costs. Aid identified Sounder
specifically as the Ayios Nikolaos surveillance station.
The UK is strategically placed for Internet surveillance. The Snowden documents,
as reported by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, revealed GCHQ
monitors at least 14 major undersea cables that come ashore in Britain. There
are trans-Atlantic, African, Western European and Europe-to-Asia cables
conveniently accessible to GCHQ on British soil.
However, Britain is not well positioned for its long-term role of spying
on the Middle East. The answer is Cyprus.
Undersea cable maps show Cyprus at the hub of numerous fibre-optic undersea
cables making it a natural site to spy on the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle
Eastern communications. A number of cables connect Cyprus to Israel and Syria,
obvious targets for Anglo-American spying. Other cables run from Cyprus to
Lebanon, Cyprus to Egypt and Turkey, to Greece and Italy, and so on.
The major SEA-ME-WE3 cable connecting South East Asia, the Middle East and
Western Europe also comes ashore on the little island country. In total over
a dozen strategic cables are accessible in Cyprus and more are planned. It
is an ideal site for monitoring communications in the Middle East and surrounding
revealed that, according to the Snowden files on the Tempora
programme, the GCHQ tapped three submarine fiber optic cables having landing
points in Sicily: Fea, SeaMeWe3 and SeaMewe4.
As Cyprus plays a crucial role in the mass surveillance operations targeting
Middle East, with 14 cables having landing points in Cyprus, Sicily plays
a crucial role with its 19 cables with landing points in the Italian island
at the center of the Mediterranean Sea, a crossroad for communications between
Europe, North Africa, Middle East and Asia (
SeaMewe3 and SeaMeWe4 are owned by a consortium of international telecoms
including the Italian company Telecom Italia Sparkle, which is
also the co-owner of many submarine cables with landing points in Cyprus,
like SeaMewe3, Lev Submarine System, Cadmos, MedNautilus Submarine System,
Telecom Italia Sparkle is an Italian company which ended up in a huge tax
evasion scandal, involving Gennaro Mokbel, an infamous Italian businessman
linked to the Italian intelligence services and to the far right extremism,
sentenced to 15 years in jail for this tax fraud scheme.
Gaining intelligence access to undersea cables requires cooperation from
the telecommunications authorities. In the UK, GCHQ has had a long-term
relationship with British Telecom, allowing telecommunications routes to
be designed to the advantage of the eavesdroppers.
This makes Cyprus perfect for GCHQ surveillance as well. The British government
directly governed Cyprus until 1960. Since then, the treaty granting the
country independence has included a special clause, section 6, stating that
the Cyprus authorities must consult and cooperate with the British
over the islands telecommunications decisions.
In other words, the government owned Cyprus Telecommunications Authority
is legally obliged to assist the British government, which in Cyprus primarily
means assisting the British intelligence bases. Some of the undersea cables
are directly owned by the Cyprus Telecommunications Authority (CYTA).
We asked CYTA if it is aware that the British intelligence station at Ayios
Nikolaos is tapping into and processing international communications carried
by undersea cables it owns and manages in Cyprus; and whether there an agreement
between CYTA and the British authorities for assisting the surveillance.
Cyta spokesperson Lefteris Christou replied that "Cyta is fully compliant
to the European legislation relating to the Data Protection of its customers,
and is not involved in any practises that violate this legislation." This
however says very little. The privacy rules in the EU Data Protection Directive
do not apply to "operations concerning public security, defence, State security."
Undersea cable engineers say that undersea cable interception occurs after
a cable emerges from the sea at a landing station and travels overland to
a data centre to connect with other cable networks. They say undersea cables
are copied inside the data centre using a passive optical splitter. A separate
fibre-optic cable would then carry the intercepted communications to an
intelligence site, in this case the Ayios Nikolaos station.
The NSA has a strong interest in the GCHQ surveillance capabilities. A Snowden
document describes direct NSA funding of GCHQ projects it sees having value
for its own intelligence operations. In 2010, £39.9 million of NSA funding
went mostly to GCHQs Mastering the Internet project and
to developments at the GCHQs underseas cable intercepting site in Bude.
The following year, according to the Guardian, NSA paid half the costs
of one of the UKs main eavesdropping capabilities in Cyprus.
This is not the first time. When a financial crisis forced Britain to withdrew
its forces from East of Suez and close many of its world-wide
bases, the UK government looked at closing the Cyprus bases. The US government
insisted in 1974 that the Cyprus bases stay open and agreed to pay some of
the costs. Later, in 1988, NSA director Odoms diary records more US
funding, a date that probably coincides with expansion into satellite
communications interception at the Ayios Nikolaos station.
A current-day GCHQ document on the future of Cyprus operations was still
arguing the Cyprus operations had to "remain resourced and equipped
to maintain healthy relationships with USA customers".
According to a further Snowden document, viewed by Süddeutsche Zeitung
journalists, US intelligence officers are also based in the British Cyprus
bases. The document says the American intelligence staff are required to
dress as tourists because the UK has promised the Cyprus government that
only British staff will work there.
The GCHQ press office responded to questions about the Cyprus surveillance
with its standard non-answer: It is long standing policy that we do
not comment on intelligence matters. Their e-mail said that
Communications with GCHQ may be monitored and/or recorded for system
efficiency and other lawful purposes.
Cyprus has been the main British communication interception base in the Middle
East for about 65 years [see box]. This has gone together with GCHQs
long-term role specialising in Middle East intelligence gathering as its
contribution to the NSA-led intelligence alliance.
The US-British intelligence alliance coordinates its Middle Eastern operations
from two huge intelligence centres: the GCHQ headquarters in England and
a NSA regional intelligence centre at Fort Gordon in the southern US state
of Georgia (known as NSA-G). Both facilities contain hundreds
of analysts who speak Middle Eastern and surrounding languages. They are
connected in real time to the flows of intercepted public calls and messages
captured by eavesdropping sites in that region.
However the key eavesdropping site, Cyprus, has remained hidden and so the
crucial influence of Cyprus-based spying on Middle Eastern politics has never
been widely understood.
05 novembre 2013
© RIPRODUZIONE RISERVATA
History of British intelligence operations in Cyprus
When the GCHQ was first exposed to the British public by investigative
journalists in the 1970s, the whistleblower John Berry was a 1960s intelligence
officer at the Ayios Nikolaos station. When Britain justified the 2003 Iraq
invasion by saying Iraqi weapons of mass destruction could reach British
bases in just 45 minutes, the bases in question were the Cyprus intelligence
facilities. When Britain provides intelligence to the present-day Syrian
rebels, the intelligence is coming in part from its Cyprus monitoring bases
(105 km off the Syrian coast). Yet Cyprus itself, the island of spies, has
largely managed to remain out of the news, at most on the edge of the news
and more often invisible. Great effort has gone into keeping it secret from
Cyprus became the main British signals intelligence location in the Middle
East in the late 1940s. Political upheavals forced the British to close large
radio eavesdropping stations in Sarafand, Palestine, and in Heliopolis, Egypt.
In 1947 these were moved to Cyprus and became the Ayios Nikolaos base. UK
eavesdropping bases in Ceylon and Habbaniya, Iraq, were closed in the 1950s
and moved to Cyprus as well. It became the main centre for Anglo-American
spying on the Middle East and surrounding regions.
The British intelligence operations expanded during the Cold War. In addition
to long-distance radio monitoring, there was the 1963 Project Sandra Over
the Horizon Radar on Mount Olympus for monitoring aircraft and missile launches
as far away as the Soviet Union. British and US spy planes flew thousands
of electronic eavesdropping and photographic missions from Cyprus; and a
US Pusher radio antenna monitored and pinpointed radio communications
across the Middle East and southern Soviet Union. A separate unmanned NSA
listening post in Cyprus -- connected to the large NSA Bad Aibling base in
Germany -- was intercepting Israeli communications. There was also an MI6
radio station and Voice of America broadcasts.
Later, Cyprus became a site for the first US-British mass surveillance system
called Echelon. This was the job of the large satellite dishes next to the
Ayios Nikolaos operations buildings, at a time when bulk telecommunications
traffic was mainly carried by satellite. They spy on regional communications
satellites and the phone calls, e-mails and other communications are processed
and searched by intelligence computers inside the buildings.
Later technology changed and fibre-optic undersea cables became the best
option for bulk communications. The era of undersea cable and Internet monitoring
was underway as well. Given the US and Britains long-term political
and military activities in the Middle East, the Cold War, the Israel-Palestine
conflict, wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, and so on, it is no
surprise that Britains intelligence real estate in the heart of this
region is still a key interception site today.