LONDON/BERLIN – Spy agencies in Germany, France, Spain and Sweden are carrying out mass surveillance of online and phone traffic in collaboration with Britain, according to documents leaked by Edward Snowden, The Guardian newspaper reported Saturday.
Britain’s GCHQ electronic eavesdropping center, which has a close relationship with the U.S. National Security Agency, has taken a leading role in helping the other countries work around laws intended to limit spying, the British newspaper said.
The report is likely to prove embarrassing for governments including those of Germany and Spain, which had denounced earlier reports that the NSA was electronically spying on their citizens. The extent to which Western intelligence agencies cooperate on Internet surveillance has come under public scrutiny since Snowden first released documents about the work of the NSA in June.Saturday’s report said the intelligence services of the European countries, in a “loose but growing” alliance, carried out surveillance through directly tapping fiber-optic cables and through secret relationships with communications companies.
On Saturday, Germany’s foreign intelligence agency confirmed that it swaps information on the latest technological developments with its European counterparts, but denied The Guardian’s report that it tried to bypass legal restrictions on Internet surveillance to be able to use advanced technology developed by the British.
“It is not true that the Federal Intelligence Agency allegedly tried to circumvent legal restrictions in order to use British surveillance technology,” said Martin Heinemann, a spokesman for the spy agency.
Heinemann said the exchange between the two agencies, which took place in 2008, focused “not on legal, but on technical questions” related to mooted surveillance regulation reforms in Germany that were never implemented.
He acknowledged, though, that the German agency regularly swaps technological tips with friendly counterparts in Europe.
The Guardian has previously reported that GCHQ taps trans-Atlantic fiber-optic cables.
On Saturday, it quoted a 2008 country by country survey by GCHQ of its European partners, plus a later report by the agency on efforts to crack commercial online encryption, both of which it said were among documents leaked by Snowden from the NSA.
In the survey, GCHQ said Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service was tapping fiber-optic cables and had “huge technological potential and good access to the heart of the Internet,” while British spies were helping it to change or bypass laws restricting their ability to intercept communications.
Spain’s National Intelligence Center assisted through a relationship with an unnamed British communications firm, it said.
Saturday’s report also said France’s General Directorate for External Security collaborated with GCHQ on breaking online encryption and secured useful information from an unnamed telecoms firm.
France, Germany and Spain have reacted angrily to reports of U.S. electronic spying, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel confronting U.S. President Barack Obama over reports that the NSA had monitored her private phone for several years. But American officials retaliated by saying that European spy agencies shared phone call records with U.S. agencies, and that media reports in Europe had misinterpreted the Snowden documents.