The data-gathering operation is part of a £1bn internet project still being assembled by GCHQ. It is part of the surveillance and monitoring system, code-named “Tempora”, whose wider aim is the global interception of digital communications, such as emails and text messages.
Across three sites, communications – including telephone calls – are tracked both by satellite dishes and by tapping into underwater fibre-optic cables.
Access to Middle East traffic has become critical to both US and UK intelligence agencies post-9/11. The Maryland headquarters of the NSA and the Defence Department in Washington have pushed for greater co-operation and technology sharing between US and UK intelligence agencies.
The Middle East station was set up under a warrant signed by the then Foreign Secretary David Miliband, authorising GCHQ to monitor and store for analysis data passing through the network of fibre-optic cables that link up the internet around the world
The certificate authorised GCHQ to collect information about the “political intentions of foreign powers”, terrorism, proliferation, mercenaries and private military companies, and serious financial fraud.
However, the certificates are reissued every six months and can be changed by ministers at will. GCHQ officials are then free to target anyone who is overseas or communicating from overseas without further checks or controls if they think they fall within the terms of a current certificate.
The precise budget for this expensive covert technology is regarded as sensitive by the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office.
However, the scale of Middle East operation, and GCHQ’s increasing use of sub-sea technology to intercept communications along high-capacity cables, suggest a substantial investment.
Intelligence sources have denied the aim is a blanket gathering of all communications, insisting the operation is targeted at security, terror and organised crime.