Australian spies in global deal to tap undersea cables
“The nation’s electronic espionage agency, the Australian Signals Directorate, is in a partnership with British, American and Singaporean intelligence agencies to tap undersea fibre optic telecommunications cables that link Asia, the Middle East and Europe and carry much of Australia’s international phone and internet traffic.
Secret information disclosed by United States intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden has revealed that the British Government Communications Headquarters is collecting all data transmitted to and from the United Kingdom and Northern Europe via the SEA-ME-WE-3 cable that runs from Japan, via Singapore, Djibouti, Suez and the Straits of Gibraltar to Northern Germany.
Australia is connected to SEA-ME-WE-3 by a link from Singapore to Perth, and GCHQ’s bulk interception includes much of Australia’s telecommunications and internet traffic with Europe.
Australian intelligence sources have also told Fairfax Media that Singaporean intelligence co-operates with Australia in accessing and sharing communications carried by the SEA-ME-WE-3 cable which lands at Tuas on the western side of Singapore Island.
Access to this major international telecommunications channel via Singapore’s government-owned operator SingTel and the country’s Defence Ministry has been a key element in an expansion of Australian-Singaporean intelligence and defence ties over the past 15 years.
It also underpinned the former Howard government’s approval of SingTel’s takeover of Australia’s second largest telecommunications company, Optus, in 2001.
Commissioned in 2000, the 39,000 kilometre long SEA-ME-WE-3 cable is owned by an international consortium that includes British Telecom, SingTel Optus, Telstra and other telecommunications companies across Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
Telstra has an 80 per cent stake in the southern segment that covers the 5000 kilometres between Singapore and Western Australia.
The Australian Signals Directorate also accesses the SEA-ME-WE-3 cable traffic from the cable’s landing in Perth.
Australian intelligence expert and Australian National University professor Des Ball said that intelligence collection from fibre optic cables had become “extremely important” since the late 1990s because such communications channels now carry more than 95 per cent of long distance international telecommunications traffic.”