The latest leaks by Edward Snowden has revealed that British intelligence agency General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) hacked into two major undersea cables owned by Reliance Communications compromising millions of users sensitive information, including those from the Indian government. The hack took place sometime between 2009 and 2011 with the help of private company Cable and Wireless, which is now owned by telecom major Vodafone since 2012, Hindustan Times reports.
These hackings of the Reliance cables and 27 others were revealed in the last week of November by UK’s Channel 4 and German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung that jointly investigated the Snowden documents. The report indicates that almost all Indian Internet traffic was tapped into as the Reliance Communications’ undersea cables carry data from a multitude of Internet service providers.
Reliance’s private undersea cable system, claiming to be one of the world’s largest, spans 67,000km across the globe. The documents show that the GCHQ had a secret financial arrangement with Cable & Wireless to use its facility in Skewjack Farm in southwest England to hack into the 29 undersea cables. One of Reliance’s undersea cables FLAG Europe-Asia was the key target, since it carries data from countries that the US and UK are most interested in, like Middle East countries, India and also China. Both cables meet at a junction in southwest UK and are connected by the local area network operated by Cable & Wireless.
Ben Padovan, the official spokesperson of Vodafone (who now owns Cable & Wireless) in the UK, told the paper, “Cable & Wireless was not owned, operated or controlled by Vodafone until 2012. We examined the past history of Cable & Wireless compliance prior to its acquisition by Vodafone and found no evidence that would substantiate these allegations.”
This operation is also identified as NSA’s fourth-largest information collection exercise from the global Internet. The report states that this was part of a major operation codenamed “PFENNING ALPHA”, a computer exploitation network run jointly by the US’s NSA, and GCHQ. There is no official statement released by Reliance, on this matter yet.