Online Spies

British government tracking


Every day, across the globe, billions of people make billions of visits to an ever-larger number of online destinations. And the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), which essentially serves as the United Kingdom's CIA, has tried to track all of them.

Between 2007 and 2008, the GCHQ drew up a series of plans for a program called "Karma Police," which is probably a reference to a song by the band Radiohead. The goal: to create "either (a) a web browsing profile for every visible user on the Internet, or (b) a user profile for every visible website on the Internet."

The project may not have ever achieved that level of totality, but the amount of data it eventually swept up was nonetheless staggering. According to documents released in September by The Intercept, which first reported the program, the GCHQ had recorded more than 1.1 trillion Web browsing sessions or other online "events," including instant message logs, Web searches, and email, by 2009. By 2012, it was adding 50 billion such events per day.

There's no way for even the largest agency to process that much info, so most of those events were then stored in a database dubbed "Black Hole"—a digital holding pen for yet-unanalyzed data. A related program named "Mutant Broth" could then be used to sort the information and identify specific Web users for more individually targeted spying.