Published on 6 Nov 2013

Spying, the seaside, sub-sea cables – and Rudyard Kipling

I’m down in Bude, in Cornwall, trying to find out what people think of the local GCHQ outpost’s spying on transatlantic data traffic.

What’s very clear as soon as you get there is that GCHQ Bude is nothing new. The dishes of the satellite listening station on the cliff top have loomed over the town for years. That GCHQ snoops on phone and internet traffic in the interests of national security is also accepted by pretty much everyone.

But what has come as a surprise are the revelations about how GCHQ, with its US partner the NSA, may have the ability to capture and store all of the data traffic coming across undersea cables crossing the Atlantic through a programme called Tempora.

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While the satellite dishes have long pointed at the shiny communications platforms orbiting the earth, it now appears that with the growth of the internet and mobile phones, GCHQ Bude has actually been paying far more attention to the cable that connects Europe with north America, that runs practically right beneath it.

TAT-14 is the main fibre-optic communications link between the US and the rest of the world and it makes landfall at Bude. Snowden’s leaks suggest GCHQ, with the help of the NSA, can gobble up all the data travelling along it, then filter it for information they are interested in.

That breach of privacy is what has prompted a move this week to force telecoms companies to come clean about whether they are co-operating with spying agencies.

It’s this collect-first ask-questions-later tactic which will be one of the key questions put to spy chiefs by  MPs in Thursday’s session with the intelligence and security committee.phototom_w

Before we head out into a drizzly morning in Cornwall to learn more, I’m wondering what Rudyard Kipling would have made of it. He knew a thing or two about spies. But also, it turns out, sub sea telecommunications. In 1896 the Kipling wrote The Deep Sea Cables, the first – and to my knowledge, the only – poem celebrating the technological marvel that is sub-sea cabling and what they have given humanity.

The wrecks dissolve above us; their dust drops down from afar—
Down to the dark, to the utter dark, where the blind white sea-snakes are.
There is no sound, no echo of sound, in the deserts of the deep,
Or the great grey level plains of ooze where the shell-burred cables creep.
Here in the womb of the world— here on the tie-ribs of earth
Words, and the words of men, flicker and flutter and beat—
Warning, sorrow and gain, salutation and mirth—
For a Power troubles the Still that has neither voice nor feet.
They have wakened the timeless Things; they have killed their father Time;
Joining hands in the gloom, a league from the last of the sun.
Hush! Men talk to-day o’er the waste of the ultimate slime,
And a new Word runs between: whispering, ‘Let us be one!’
(The Deep-Sea Cables was originally published in 1896 by Methuen & Co. in The Seven Seas)

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4 reader comments

  1. quietoaktree says:

    Just as appropriate from Kipling is-

    The Vampire

    A fool there was and he made his prayer
    (Even as you and I!)
    To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair
    (We called her the woman who did not care),
    But the fool he called her his lady fair
    (Even as you and I!)

    Oh the years we waste and the tears we waste
    And the work of our head and hand,
    Belong to the woman who did not know
    (And now we know that she never could know)
    And did not understand.

    A fool there was and his goods he spent
    (Even as you and I!)
    Honor and faith and a sure intent
    But a fool must follow his natural bent
    (And it wasn’t the least what the lady meant),
    (Even as you and I!)

    Oh the toil we lost and the spoil we lost
    And the excellent things we planned,
    Belong to the woman who didn’t know why
    (And now we know she never knew why)
    And did not understand.

    The fool we stripped to his foolish hide
    (Even as you and I!)
    Which she might have seen when she threw him aside —
    (But it isn’t on record the lady tried)
    So some of him lived but the most of him died —
    (Even as you and I!)

    And it isn’t the shame and it isn’t the blame
    That stings like a white hot brand.
    It’s coming to know that she never knew why
    (Seeing at last she could never know why)
    And never could understand.
    Rudyard Kipling

    With Germany, mainland Europe, NATO and the EU as the fool — and ´5 Eyes´

    the ´woman´ mentioned –everything fits nicely.

  2. Philip says:

    I can see the arguments for what GCHQ have been up to and the at least as strong counter-arguments. What I find amazing is that everyone regards this a such a surprise. What do you think GCHQ is for? And don’t we think that it’s more than likely the , for instance, the Russians, Chinese & French, do exactly the same, but have been less dogmatically stupid in outsourcing work which gives people access to their secrets?

  3. Michael C Feltham says:

    Time, perhaps to dispell certain crass miss assumptions?

    Populist media propagates the illusion, NSA et al can “Tap” into submarine telecom and data cables.

    The old style copper conductors, yes indeed. However present state-of-the-art Optic Fibre, well not at all. It is possible to snoop on simple comms optical fire cabling by the simple expedient of bending it (if there is sufficient slack) through circa 90 degrees, when stray light “Escapes”. Tricky, since polarised light waves tend to travel ins extremely straight lines, as the origin is LASER.

    The ONLY methodology for “Tapping” into the heavily armoured and multi-sheathed submarine Optic Fibre cable utilised for deep sea comms, is by physically cutting it; then polishing the ends and splicing in some form of wave guide and detector.

    Which would mean, that cable would instantly report “Broken” to the esoteric signal monitoring systems as it transits the sea and feeds into the first land-based processing/distribution station. Remember, such cabling, laid at awesome cost, comprises multi-strand separate cables, each of which is “multiplexed” in order to carry tens of thousands of discrete signals.

    Therefore, the ONLY way this snooping can be done is by government diktat, compelling signal collection/reading kit at the land-based station.

    Satcom is totally different, as these use microwave level frequency and whilst microwaves also mainly travel in straight lines (unlike free-radiating RF – Radio Frequency), such signals may be readily intercepted: which is what the geodesic domes are doing in Gibraltar, Cyprus et al.

    However most journalists and the media are fixated on ersatz James Bond sort of espionage, envisioning submarines and deep sea divers dressed in black suits tapping into submarine cables.

    Save it for stupid “Blockbuster” films and interactive video games!

  4. Gerry Lloyd says:

    Since at least 2007, it’s been a nasty workplace amusement for one company http://www.theystooptosnoop.blogspot.com

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