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Leaked Snowden Documents reveals Big Brother at GCHQ

Leaked documents from the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden have revealed the full extent to which the UK based, and NSA equivalent, GCHQ is able to manipulate the internet according to its own ends (The Guardian - GCHQ has tools to manipulate online information, leaked documents show). Based in Cheltenham, the communications intelligence facility has a whole host of covert capabilities at its disposal both for hacking into the net and into personal computers linked to the net.


The leaked document follows the format of a Wikipedia page and lists the online capabilities at the disposal of GCHQ’s Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG). It was first revealed on The Intercept in July 

2014 (The Intercept - Hacking Online Polls and Other Ways British Spies Seek to Control the Internet). The document represents an archive which can be accessed by employees of GCHQ requiring knowledge of the capabilities at their disposal. 

GCHQ Cheltenham

Government Communications Headquarters, GCHQ, at Cheltenham.

Among the government sponsored hacking programs which are listed in the archive are: GATEWAY, which can create false traffic to any given website and hence artificially increase its ratings on the search results; UNDERPASS, which can manipulate and falsify online polls; CHANGELING, which can send bogus email out from any given email address; BADGER, which can generate email SPAM in support of ‘Information Operations’ campaigns; and WARPATH, which can generate SMS SPAM also in support of ‘Information Operations’ campaigns.


 A number of these capabilities have the ring of Big Brother about them. For example why should a government agency wish to manipulate online polls as is the case with UNDERPASS? And moreover should they even be allowed to do such a thing in the first place? Such a capability goes against the very democratic tradition the nation holds dear and it is difficult to see how such a tool could be used for neutralising online threats to national security. 

GCHQ leaked document

A page from the leaked document in question.

Similar questions could be raised about GATEWAY. We have to ask ourselves is it really is in the national interests to artificially raise a given website in the popularity rankings above other websites? It is difficult at the end of the day to see the difference between the promotion of legitimate information for the public interest and the blatant sponsoring of government propaganda.


Earlier in the year Snowden had released two other GCHQ documents to NBC News in the U.S. which took the form of two PowerPoint presentations (NBC News - Inside the Mind of Edward Snowden). The two slide shows in question had been presented at highly confidential spy conferences held in 2010 and 2012. The two presentations make reference to a whole host of methodologies that could be used against potential online targets. For example page 8 of the first document is tilted, “Discredit a target”. Under the title are four bullet points reading, “Set up a honey-trap”, “Change their photos on social networking sites”, “Write a blog purporting to be one of their victims”, “Email/text their colleagues, neighbours, friends etc”. 

Inside GCHQ

Just another day at the office inside GCHQ.

It isn’t easy to see how emailing the friends and neighbours of suspected terrorists is going to benefit GCHQ in any way, so it can only be assumed such a capability must relate to harassment campaigns directed against left-wing radicals or other such persons the government takes a dim view of. In fact the whole slide including the title, “Discredit a target” and each of its bullet points strongly suggests victimization.


The next slide in the presentation however, found on page 10 of the document, is even more controversial when it comes to questions of legality. Titled, “Discredit a company” it’s followed by three bullet points reading, “Leak confidential information to companies / the press via blogs etc”, “Post negative information on appropriate forums”, “Stop deals / ruin business relationships”. The overwhelming suggestion produced by the slide is that if a registered company gets on the wrong side of GCHQ, for whatever reason, they can be put out of business.

GCHQ PowerPoint slide

A slide from the second PowerPoint presentation.

The second PowerPoint presentation leaked to NBC News also has some quite controversial content. For example page 5 of the presentation is titled, “CNIO, Computer Network Information Operations” and has the coloured logos of Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and Facebook on the one side and on the other a list of bullet points reading: “Propaganda”, “Deception”, “Mass messaging”, “Pushing Stories”, “Alias development” and “Psychology”.


What this slide clearly suggests is the manipulation of public opinion by creating false consensuses of opinion on social media networks through the artificial mass messaging of bogus comments. Indeed opinions expressed on social media like Twitter are often quoted in the mainstream news and as such are presented as the opinion of the average man or woman on the street; but how many of these messages have been artificially created by government agencies like GCHQ?

GCHQ satirical logo

A satirical GCHQ logo from civil liberties protestors.

A number of internet service providers launched a lawsuit against GCHQ this year who are claiming the government agency hacked into and misused their respective networks (BBC News - ISPs take legal action against GCHQ). Among the list of allegations which have been made against GCHQ is that employees at the Belgian telecommunications company Belacom were infected with malware which enabled GCHQ to gain access to their network. The ISP’s have teamed up with the campaign group Privacy International who earlier in 2014 had launched another case against GCHQ relating to the agency’s alleged use of malware to infect and spy upon millions of home computers and mobile phones from around the world (Privacy International - Privacy International challenges GCHQ's unlawful hacking of computers, mobile phones).


According to documents released by Edward Snowden, the NSA and GCHQ have been using malware to infect people’s computers on a massive scale (Sky News - Snowden: NSA 'Targets Millions' With Malware). The computers become infected after visiting a faked Facebook server and the software then allows the government complete and unhindered access to the infected computers and all its data. Originally intended to infect only a few hundred computers, it is now thought the malicious software has infected millions of computers worldwide. Through the software the government can even listen in on the computer’s owner through its built-in microphone or can even watch the owner through its built-in webcam. 

Banksy GCHQ mural

A Banksy mural just three miles from GCHQ.

It seems the work of intelligence agencies like GCHQ is not scrutinized nearly enough and in general intelligence agencies can do pretty much whatever they please completely unhindered. The regulatory body overseeing GCHQ, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC), consisting of seven MP’s and two Lords, has unrestricted access to the agency during their regular inspections of the agency but they had failed to pick up on any of the alleged infringements of liberties and invasions of privacy that have been detailed. It is only in response to mounting public criticism resulting from the Snowden leaks that the ISC has decided that the existing legislation may need reviewing (The Register - MPs to review laws on UK spy-snoopery after GCHQ Tempora leaks).


A public statement issued by the Intelligence and Security Committee claimed that GCHQ had not actually broken any of the existing UK laws but that new legislation may have to be introduced to sufficiently protect the privacy of online communications in the future. But this statement surely flies in the face of the several legal actions currently standing against GCHQ and also the contents of the leaked documents themselves which quite evidently point to practices of harassment and victimisation of selected target individuals by employees at GCHQ.

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