Methods Used by GCHQ for Destroying The Guardian’s Laptops, Revealed more than Hoped

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In July 2013, the GCHQ, which is nearing the equivalent of the United States NSA (National Security Agency), had proceeded to force the London Headquarters of The Guardian to completely and fully obliterate all memory and other storage components, on any and all devices. These devices were said to have held top-secret documents, which provided information to The Guardian’s journalists,  given from a former NSA contractor and famous whistleblower, Edward Snowden.

GCHQ revealed very detailed information as to what it did, as well as why.

Overseeing the obliteration process, were two well-known technologists, Mustafa Al-Bassam and Richard Tynan. These two made a special trip to the London-Based Headquarters office of The Guardian last year, in order to properly examine the remains of the respective devices, in which held such valuable and discriminating evidence. Together, Al-Bassam and Tynan confirmed that GCHQ enforced the journalist’s company to destroy any and all sources that held the secretive information.

They also confirmed that the GCHQ’s instructions on how the operation would commence, may have inadvertently revealed information pertaining to the locations in your computer, where such information might be covertly hidden and stored.

Naturally, after being faced with a large lawsuit from the British government – and the threat of halting any further reports on the matter, including reports of how the GCHQ utilized private information collected by the NSA on communications from several major ISP (Internet Service Providers) – The Guardian agreed to the deletion of their computers to prevent the lawsuit from happening.

The video above is real footage of The Guardian editors physically destroying their computers’ hard drives and MacBooks. They also destroyed USB drives, which had been taken by The Guardian executive director, Sheila Fitzsimons. However, this information was not revealed until several months later, in January 2014. The two GCHQ agents that had been assigned to supervise the destruction of the Guardians technology, had also recorded everything on their respective iPhone’s.

Watching the video, you can note the editors using angle-grinders, revolving drills, and even masks, which the GCHQ had ordered them to purchase. Another tool used during the video is the Degausser. This is a very expensive device provided by the GCHQ, which aims to destroy all magnetic fields, therefore completely erasing the computers. This entire procedure of eliminating the information from the chips, left the pieces almost completely unrecognizable. The process lasted just over 3 hours.

The deputy director of The Guardian, Paul Johnson, was creating everything into a “purely a symbolic act.” The files that had been given to them by Snowden, still reportedly exists in The Guardian’s New York location. (And there may also be more to it than what is being stated).

While giving a speech at the Chaos Communication Camp Technology conference, Al-Bassam and Tynan had explored the complete details in which surrounded the GCHQ’s decisions to order this destruction. The two hypothesized about possible intentions bestowed by the GCHQ, beyond the point of intimidation.

Al-Bassam stated that “normally people just destroy the hard drive.” However, the GCHQ took matters much further than what would normally be required. This top-secret spy agency specifically ordered the Guardian editors to destroy specific parts of their Mac Book Airs’ such as their track pad controllers, power controllers, keyboards, CPU’s inverting converters, USB drives and a slew of other devices that are unusual.

WikiLeaks has released a 2001 British Government document in which states that the U.K. Ministry of Defense is in fact mandating a complete and total obliteration of all documents. This is in order to aid in their defense against the F.I.S.’s (Foreign Intelligence Services), other popular extremist groups, investigative journalists and cyber criminals. This document can be viewed here.

Adding more suspense to this topic: the two technology experts submitted a request asking for the HMG (Her Majesty’s Government) for the information about the Assurance Note 5, as well as the government-wide document in which held the information about the U.K.’s so called “sanitation” policies and procedures.

Such policies included the specific steps in which the government requires the journalist to delete their information. However, after requesting such information, they were ultimately denied their request. The required sanitation policies of the other respective members stating of the so-called “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance includes the United States of America, New Zealand, Canada and Australia. These documents are all public, and have also appeared to be extremely close in similarity of the requirements to the techniques in which was utilized for The Guardian’s obliteration process.

However, allowing those from The Guardian to destroy the devices themselves, and even having the ability to keep in their possession the remnants of their lost computers, the British government had also essentially revealed such policies. This is in order to allow it more possible for other technology professionals, like Al-Bassam and Tynan, to properly analyze just why The Guardian’s equipment was destroyed in such a specific way.

Al-Bassam and Tynan had come to an assumption that the government is targeting specific devices on Apple computers in which they “[don’t] trust” specific hardware parts. Albeit, those parts are capable of retaining bits of gathered information over time, even after one obliterates the hard drive.

For example, for those running an Apple computer, the track pad controller can hold up to 2 megabits of memory. And all of the different chips that it takes to build a computer, from parts that power the computer to the chips inside the keyboard, also hold the ability to store random data such as passwords and other important keys leading to data in other documents. This can then be uploaded into the firmware updates.

In theory, the information that is gathered and stored within the compounds of these chips can be taken advantage of. Both Al-Bassam and Tynan stated that a computer owner could be vulnerable to these storage techniques, by other hackers and even the government itself. This is a flaw that was either inserted into the design phase, or after the computer had been purchased.

Also, on that note, the Russian cyber security firm “Kaspersky Lab” has also revealed their presentation on the evidence in which lives a secretive organization known only as “Equation Group.” This group is also reported to be linked to the NSA. This connection is also tied into the development of “create an invisible, persistent area hidden inside [a computer’s] hard drive” in which would also be held virtually undetectable by the respective computer’s owner.

When speaking about the terminology of the GCHQ’s intentions, technologist Kaminsky believes that the answer does lie within the computer between a power play move, and a protocol based upon real concern on that part of the agency. “I think GCHQ was doing half theater and half genuine threat response here. The likelihood that The Guardian had anything hidden in the trackpad was low, but from GCHQ’s perspective they’d hide something in the track pad so why wouldn’t anyone else?” he stated.

After viewing the video, the methods provided by the GCHQ to obliterate the information from the computers, reveals just how difficult it truly is to completely and permanently delete all information from a computer when it is truly necessary to do so. The two technology specialists went further, asking other large companies as to the design of the parts used in their computer to store information, and even more so, which parts could “potentially betray us.” Neither one of the companies provided any information the two sought out.

Sources:  The Guardian, Media CCC, Kaspersky Lab, Reuters, The Intercept.


This article (Methods Used by GCHQ for Destroying The Guardian’s Laptops, Revealed more than Hoped) is a free and open source. You have permission to republish this article under a Creative Commons license with attribution to the author and AnonHQ.


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