GCHQ ‘Karma Police’ system to track everyone’s internet browsing revealed

Graeme Burton — Digital.co.uk Sept 28, 2015

GCHQ: the British government's listening post in Cheltenham. Click to enlarge

GCHQ: the British government’s listening post in Cheltenham. Click to enlarge

The system has been running for seven years and was implemented without any parliamentary authorisation or other external approval or scrutiny.

“Karma Police”, a GCHQ mass internet surveillance programme, has been logging the browsing habits of internet users worldwide – including visits to all websites, posts on social media and news sites, search engine queries, and posts on chat forums and blogs.

The revelation is the latest to be released out of the documents expropriated by US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. It follows up news of how the UK intelligence services forced BT and other companies operating internet backbone capacity in the UK to tap fibre-optic cables that traverse the UK.

The documents were released by The Intercept, the investigative web site set up to exploit the trove of millions of documents.

One system builds profiles showing people’s web browsing histories. Another analyses instant messenger communications, emails, Skype calls, text messages, cell phone locations, and social media interactions. Separate programmes were built to keep tabs on ‘suspicious’ Google searches and usage of Google Maps,” reports The Intercept.

It continues: “The surveillance is underpinned by an opaque legal regime that has authorised GCHQ to sift through huge archives of metadata about the private phone calls, emails and internet browsing logs of Brits, Americans, and any other citizens – all without a court order or judicial warrant.”

As of 2012, it claims, GCHQ was storing about 50 billion metadata records about online communications and web browsing activity every day. Today, it ought to be capable of record 100 billion separate records every day, it adds.

“The power of Karma Police was illustrated in 2009, when GCHQ launched a top-secret operation to collect intelligence about people using the internet to listen to radio shows.

“The agency used a sample of nearly seven million metadata records, gathered over a period of three months, to observe the listening habits of more than 200,000 people across 185 countries, including the US, the UK, Ireland, Canada, Mexico, Spain, the Netherlands, France and Germany.”

The aim of the online radio surveillance, according to The Intercept, was to identify listening trends that might indicate Islamist sympathies.

“They zeroed in on any stations found broadcasting recitations from the Quran, such as a popular Iraqi radio station and a station playing sermons from a prominent Egyptian imam named Sheikh Muhammad Jebril. They then used Karma Police to find out more about these stations’ listeners, identifying them as users on Skype, Yahoo, and Facebook.”

It was also able to identify individuals’ other web browsing habits.

The documents indicate that the plans for Karma Police were drawn up between 2007 and 2008, with the aim of providing the agency with “either (a) a web browsing profile for every visible user on the internet, or (b) a user profile for every visible website on the internet”.


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