GCHQ headquarters

U.K. reveals secret policy for mass spying on Facebook, Google activity

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The U.K. government believes it has the right to spy on any British citizens' Internet activity that takes place on U.S.-based platforms, including  GoogleFacebookTwitter, and YouTubenewly released documents reveal.

Release of a detailed defense of British intelligence agency GCHQ's activities, compiled by British director-general of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism Charles Farr, comes ahead of a legal challenge of the activities of the U.K. agency by Privacy International, Amnesty International, Liberty and other civil liberties organizations.

Under Britain’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), an individual warrant is required for the interception of all “internal communications,” or communications that take place within U.K. borders. To receive an individual warrant, which targets a single person or address, law enforcement must have substantiated suspicions of illegal activity. However, by classifying activity on sites like Google and Facebook, whose data centres are based in the U.S., as “external,” the U.K. government claims a legal justification for carrying out mass surveillance, even when there’s no suspicion of wrongdoing.

While the legal authority does not include emails sent from one U.K. user to another—even if it passes temporarily through American data centers—it does include anything stored “externally”, whether that’s Google searches, Facebook posts, or tweets.

Given the volume of messages sent online, Farr argues that blanket surveillance is the only viable option for collecting intelligence: 

“The only practical way in which the government can ensure that it is able to obtain at least a fraction of the type of communication in which it is interested is to provide for the interception of a large volume of communications and the subsequent selection of a small fraction of those communications for examination by the application of relevant sectors.”

This is the first legal defense of the U.K. government’s surveillance programs, originally revealed by former National Security Agency contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden a year ago. Privacy International has lodged a formal legal challenge against GCHQ’s activities, describing it as “incompatible with democratic principles and human rights standards.” The case is set to be heard next month.

The Farr document also refuses to formally confirm or deny the “alleged” TEMPORA program, detailed in previous Snowden revelations and said to be similar in nature to the PRISM program operated by the NSA.

Due to apparent security risks, it “has been the policy of successive U.K. governments to neither confirm nor deny who they may or may not be monitoring... Similarly, the neither confirm nor deny principle has been applied to the truth of claims about the operational activities of the Intelligence Services, including in particular intelligence-gathering capabilities and techniques,” the document reads.

If such a program did exist, however, Farr believes it would be legal.

Any potential privacy violations are not “active intrusions,” Farr writes, because analysts who intercept and read the communications will subsequently forget about them—a justification dismissed by civil liberty advocates.

“The suggestion that violations of the right to privacy are meaningless if the violator subsequently forgets about it not only offends the fundamental, inalienable nature of human rights, but patronises the British people, who will not accept such a meagre excuse for the loss of their civil liberties,” Eric King, Deputy Director of Privacy International, said in a written statement.

“We always believed that Tempora enables unlawful profiling of people living outside U.K.,” said Shahzad Ahmad, County Director of Bytes for All. “Now we’ve come to learn that GCHQ are also subjecting U.K. residents to this intrusive spying. … Such attempts by established democracies are setting extremely worrisome precedents by repressive regimes all over the world.”

Photo via Matt Crypto/Wikimedia Commons (PD)