British spy agency sharing worldwide phone, Internet records with NSA

Britain's spy agency GCHQ has surreptitiously tapped into vast volumes of data drawn from the fiber-optic cables that carry the world's phone calls and Internet traffic, and is sharing with its U.S. counterpart - the National Security Agency (NSA) - personal information it finds, according to a new finding among top-secret documents leaked by former government contractor Edward Snowden.

The Guardian newspaper, which first reported on NSA programs designed to track suspected terrorists by secretly culling U.S. phone records and mining user data from major Internet servers, published a story Friday on the operation, code-named "Tempora." The 18-month-old program allows GCHQ to not only access from anyone in the world communications ranging from recordings of phone calls to Facebook entries and browser histories, but also store it for 30 days in order to sort and analyze it.

Documents leaked by Snowden show GCHQ was dealing with 600 million "telephone events" per day. The Guardian said it "understands that a total of 850,000 NSA employees and U.S. private contractors with top-secret clearance had access" to the databases.

One source "with knowledge of intelligence" on Friday echoed to the Guardian the same defense that U.S. officials have used following the disclosure of the NSA programs, arguing the data is collected legally under a system of safeguards, and had helped to prevent serious crime in the past.

But Americans who were among 250 NSA employees assigned to sift through the data last year told the Guardian that in legal briefings preceding the assignment, GCHQ lawyers told them, "We have a light oversight regime compared with the U.S." Asked what was appropriate to search for, the lawyers reportedly told the Americans: "Your call."

Snowden, who was last reported in Hong Kong, has drawn ire from Republicans and Democrats alike for his decision to leak information the government argues was designed to keep Americans safe. Lauded by some libertarian activists for exposing what they believe to be overreach of government surveillance practices, Snowden told the Guardian: "It's not just a US problem; the UK has a huge dog in this fight."

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