The physical network behind surveillance – an extraordinary video about Cornish internet apparatus

The path to the beach at Porthcurno - - 1298346
The path to the beach at Porthcurno, Cornwall. The diamond-shaped sign indicates the presence of underground cables, of which there are many buried under the beach, this place being the landfall of many cables under the Atlantic Ocean. The small building houses the terminals of these cables.

Here on Liberal Democrat Voice, we often debate the subject of government surveillance. But do we ever consider the actual physical network of cables and buildings which underpin that surveillance?

Videographer Mark Thomas has published an extraordinary video on You Tube which shows cables, manhole covers, buildings and the like, to give a detailed picture of how the network, which presumably facilitates surveillance of data, works on the ground.

The film, “The Secrets of Cornwall” is below. It’s nearly an hour-long and is heavy on technical minutiae. It’s worth a bit of patience to watch it the whole way through. Mark Thomas has spent four years tenaciously piecing together publicly available information to produce an extremely thorough and comprehensive piece of work. The facts, plus some informed speculation, are presented in a very attractive way, woven as part of a methodical geographic, south to north, narrative.

Many of us live in or travel around Cornwall, oblivious to its importance as a communications hub. It is remarkable to see that, hidden amongst the charming country lanes, pretty cottages and crowded beaches, there are cables and buildings with massive amounts of data whizzing through them.

It should be emphasised that Mark Thomas carefully liaised with the police and security agencies to produce the video, as he told CornwallLive:

We were working with Special Branch to ensure that we did not endanger national security and we have been given the green light to release the film after it has been with the security services for review.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is currently taking a break from his role as one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Laurence Cox 9th Jan '17 - 12:06pm

    As well as being home to the Minack Theatre, Porthcurno also has a very good Telegraph Museum which tells the story of how cable communication came about. Cornwall is well-endowed with sites relating to communications; Marconi sent the first trans-atlantic radio message from Poldhu on the Lizard Peninsula, while nearby is the Goonhilly Earth Station for satellite communications.

  • Is the bowed horizon the curvature of the Earth, or is it the result of the lens being pitched upwards?

    The picture is rather dark, given the unobstructed sunlight and the short shadows. Was the red spot pointed at the path or the white hut?

  • At 30m 50s spot the large roadside Lib Dem diamond! Couldn’t see who it was for, perhaps Andrew George.
    Fascinating video.

  • George Dunk 10th Jan '17 - 2:40pm

    Thank you Paul for posting the Mark Thomas documentary. It was really fascinating especially as I had never gven athought to the hundreds of telecomms manhole covers that exist along the narrow back lanes of West Penwith ! Although i have lived in London (with postings abroad) for the past 40 years, I am from Cornwall and will soon be retiring “home” to St.Ives…I was active in the Young Liberals both there and nationally. In the early ‘seventies we mounted a full blown campaign against CBWE Nancekuke, the Porton Down outstation. We succeeded as a PR stunt for most of a whole day in locating border posts on each of the main road crossing points into Cornwall and handing incoming tourists leaflets warning of the evil goings on at what was to become a NATO radar base (RAF Portreath). With regards to the excellent documentary there was an ariel shot of Nancekuke at the beginning. Interested readers might care to look on their search engines for the words Echelon, RAF Morwenstow and Menwith Hill

  • Thanks for posting this Paul. I remember my parents pointing out the cables on Porthcurnow beach when I was a kid. They looked too rusty to be anything but relics, but they still do in the film! They were probably interested because my grandfather worked for the Telegraph Service in the Persian Gulf for 30 years from the start of the 20th Century. In those days an efficient communications network was a vital component in Britain keeping control of its empire. The film fairly subtly shows the hidden power of the state today: it’s not exactly sinister, but the infrastructure is there if our government ever did decide to use its power against some of its citizens. (Greetings to George Dunk too!)

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