US and British spy agencies rely on a data transmission center in Cyprus to intercept phone and Internet records from users in the Middle East, new reports showed Tuesday.
Investigation by three European news publications used documents leaked by former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, and other evidence, to identify the Ayios Nikolaos surveillance station, located on a British military base in Eastern Cyprus, as the Middle East’s main spy hub.
The NSA and its British counterpart GCHQ have been embroiled in controversy since newspapers began publishing classified documents provided to them by Snowden in June that detail how the spy agencies illegally collect and store electronic data on millions of people around the world.
The targets of their intercepts have included heads of states, political and military leaders, diplomats, businesses and other institutions.
Research by Italian magazine l’Espresso, German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung and Greece’s Ta Nea discovered that the center taps into more than a dozen underwater fiber optic cables connecting Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Israel and other Mediterranean states to Cyprus.
Some of those cables are owned by the state-run Cyprus Telecommunications Authority, which is likely assisting the British and American spy agencies to intercept the data they are after.
The center is one of three used by the British government to collect electronic data transmissions, according to a Guardian report published in June that cites Snowden documents.
That report said GCHQ conducts its spying operations “from its headquarters in Cheltenham, its station in Bude, and a location abroad, which the Guardian will not identify.”
But the three reports published Tuesday were able to identify the third site as Ayios Nikolaos after The Washington Post on Monday published a document from Snowden that lists the two British sites used by GCHQ plus a third site code-named “Sounder.”
It was then discovered by NSA expert Matthew Aid that the name Sounder was mentioned in the diary of former US spy chief William Odom. Odom, during a 1988 meeting with his GCHQ counterpart, noted in the diary that Sounder was located in Cyprus.
Aid apparently identified the center in question as Ayios Nikolaos, uncovering a long held and tightly guarded secret.
Arial images of the site show it surrounded by satellite dishes, allowing the western spy agencies to eavesdrop on live phone conversations, chats and collect other electronic communication in real time.
The massive amounts of data GCHQ collects from its three spy centers are shared with the NSA in a program dubbed “Tempora” designed to streamline spying. The Guardian document published in June explains that the two agencies collaborate to take advantage of GCHQ’s capabilities to collect the troves of data, and NSA’s software to more efficiently sift through it.
The NSA has reportedly spent tens of millions of dollars in secret funding to bolster GCHQ’s capabilities with investments in its spy centers.
Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported that NSA officials – dressed as tourists – maintain a presence at the Cyprus center. It said that they wear disguises because GCHQ made a commitment to Cyprus not to allow foreigners to work at the base.
The Wall Street Journal last month caused an international firestorm when it reported the NSA tapped the phones of 35 world leaders, including that of German chancellor Angela Merkel.
Documents detailing what data the NSA and GCHQ have collected from the Middle East have yet to be released in the ongoing Snowden spy saga.