Charles Farr, director general of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (Britain’s top spook) has defended mass GCHQ surveillance, which includes hoovering up data from Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube posts, Google searches, and (often explicit) private Yahoo webcam sessions, on the grounds that section 8(4) of the UK’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) permits interception of ‘external communications.’
This flies in the face of most experts understanding of the Act, which clearly states under section 8(1) that internet communication between UK citizens can only be monitored, pursuant to a specific warrant which should only be granted where there is some reason to suspect the person in question of unlawful activity.
This has always been generally understood to mean that for any user of domestic communications, a warrant is required before their communications can monitored (and of course the majority of ordinary of people are completely ignorant of RIPA at all). In other words, GCHQ is exploiting a little understood loophole in a law that the vast majority of UK residents have never even heard of, and certainly never agreed to.
Farr’s 48-page statement was published today by Privacy International, and comes in response to a legal challenge to the UK government, brought before the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) by Privacy International, Liberty, Amnesty International and other civil rights groups
‘Any regime that … only permitted interception in relation to specific persons or premises, would not have allowed adequate levels of intelligence information to be obtained and would not have met the undoubted requirements of intelligence for the protection of national security,’ claims Farr.
This is the first time that the government has stated a legal justification for its highly controversial Temora program, which was brought to light thanks to documents released by NSA wistleblower Edward Snowden. Unsurprisingly, citizen’s rights activists are unimpressed. Deputy Director of Privacy International Eric King responded that,
‘Intelligence agencies cannot be considered accountable to parliament and to the public they serve when their actions are obfuscated through secret interpretations of byzantine laws.
Moreover, 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.’
James Welch, legal director of Liberty, added that,
‘The security services consider that they’re entitled to read, listen and analyse all our communications on Facebook, Google and other US-based platforms. If there was any remaining doubt that our snooping laws need a radical overhaul, there can be no longer. The agencies now operate in a legal and ethical vacuum; why the deafening silence from our elected representatives?’
Micheal Bochneck, senior director of international law and policy at Amnesty International, summed up the situation nicely with his statement that,
‘British citizens will be alarmed to see their government justifying industrial-scale intrusion into their communications. The public should demand an end to this wholesale violation of their right to privacy.’
Unfortunately, while it is heartening to see civil liberties groups make the government squirm, we have little faith in either the UK (or any) government, or the will of a largely apathetic public to prevent increasingly Orwellian intrusion into our private lives. Our best defence lies in taking matters into our own hands, and encrypting everything.