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Tempora is the codeword for a formerly secret computer system that is used by the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). This system is used to buffer most internet communications that are extracted from fibre-optic cables, so these can be processed and searched at a later time. It was tested since 2008 and became operational in the autumn of 2011.
Tempora uses intercepts on the fibre-optic cables that make up the backbone of the internet to gain access to large amounts of internet users' personal data, without any individual suspicion or targeting. The intercepts are placed in the United Kingdom and overseas, with the knowledge of companies owning either the cables or landing stations.
The existence of Tempora was revealed by Edward Snowden, a former American intelligence contractor who leaked information about the program to former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald in May 2013, as part of his revelations of government-sponsored mass surveillance programs. Documents Snowden acquired claimed that data collected by the Tempora program is shared with the National Security Agency of the United States.
According to Edward Snowden, Tempora has two principal components called "Mastering the Internet" (MTI) and "Global Telecoms Exploitation" (GTE). He claimed that each is intended to collate online and telephone traffic. This however contradicts two original documents, which say that Tempora is only for internet traffic, just like the XKeyscore system of the NSA, components of which are incorporated in Tempora. 
The Guardian claims that no distinction is made in the gathering of data between private citizens and targeted suspects. Tempora is said to include recordings of telephone calls, the content of email messages, Facebook entries and the personal internet history of users. Snowden said of Tempora that "It's not just a U.S. problem. The UK has a huge dog in this fight...They [GCHQ] are worse than the U.S."
Claims exist that Tempora was possible only by way of secret agreements with commercial companies, described in Snowden's leaked documents as "intercept partners". Some companies are alleged to have been paid for their co-operation. Snowden also alleged that GCHQ staff were urged to disguise the origin of material in their reports for fear that the role of the companies as intercept partners would cause "high-level political fallout". The companies are forbidden to reveal the existence of warrants compelling them to allow GCHQ access to the cables. If the companies fail to comply they can be compelled to do so.
Lawyers for GCHQ said it would be impossible to list the total number of people targeted by Tempora because "this would be an infinite list which we couldn't manage".
GCHQ set up a three-year trial at the GCHQ Bude in Cornwall. GCHQ had probes attached to more than 200 internet links by Summer 2011, each probe carried 10 gigabits of data a second. NSA analysts were brought into the trials, and Tempora was launched in Autumn 2011, with data shared with the NSA. Ongoing technical work is expanding GCHQ's capacity to collect data from new super cables that carry data at 100 gigabits a second. The data is preserved for three days while metadata is kept for thirty days.
TEMPORA comprises different components, like the actual access points to fiber-optic cables, a sanitisation program codenamed POKERFACE, the XKEYSCORE system developed by NSA, and a Massive Volume Reduction (MVR) capability.
In May 2012, GCHQ had TEMPORA systems installed at the following locations:
- 16 for 10 gigabit/second cables at the CPC processing center
- 7 for 10 gigabit/second cables at the OPC processing center
- 23 for 10 gigabit/second cables at the RPC1 processing center
UK Defence officials issued a confidential DA-Notice to the BBC and other media asking the media to refrain from running further stories related to surveillance leaks including US PRISM program and the British involvement therein.
The US Army has restricted its employees' access to the Guardian website since the beginning of the NSA leaks of PRISM and Tempora "in order to prevent an unauthorized disclosure of classified information."
German Federal Minister of Justice Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger tweeted that she considered the program an "Alptraum" ("nightmare") and demanded that European institutions investigate the matter.
Jan Philipp Albrecht, German Member of the European Parliament and spokesperson for Justice and Home Affairs of the Greens/EFA parliamentary group, called for an infringement procedure against the United Kingdom for having violated its obligations relating to the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data under Article 16 of the Treaties of the European Union.
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- INDECT: European Union project
- List of government surveillance projects
- Mass surveillance in the United Kingdom
- Mastering the Internet
- Signals intelligence
- Tempora mutantur, Latin adage
- UKUSA SIGINT Agreement
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