Study Sheds Light on UK’s Dirty Surveillance Tactics

Ray Walsh

Ray Walsh

June 7, 2016

An investigation carried out by Computer Weekly has confirmed that domestic British emails sent from one UK residence to another are being snooped on regularly by the UK’s version of the NSA. The independent study confirms that GCHQ has been making use of its access to the NSA’s Prism Program to perform surveillance on emails it would otherwise be forbidden to go after.

Last year, evidence emerged that GCHQ had been regularly gathering private British emails. A fact that was already made public in 2013 by Edward Snowden. At that time, Members of Parliament (MPs) were shocked to find out that they had also been affected by the data grab.

MP’s felt that their emails should not have been subjected to the same surveillance as the general public because of a gentleman’s agreement between UK intelligence and the government. Amusingly, that belief was soon shot down by an independent review panel, which decided that GCHQ had been accessing the data legally.

Now, an independent study of MPs’ email communications (performed by Computer Weekly’s Bill Goodwin and Duncan Campbell), has shed some light on how those emails were intercepted.

According to the investigation, emails sent to and from members of Parliament (including those sent to local constituents) are regularly gathered, en masse, as they pass out of the UK and into data centres located in Dublin and the Netherlands. A purposefully manufactured journey (to foreign shores) that the UK’s emails are forced to go through.

That surveillance, of course, is not just confined to those Parliamentary correspondences. In reality, it is how two-thirds of British emails are being syphoned off by GCHQ’s Tempora program. Also of interest, the study has revealed that in the case of the MP’s emails: Microsoft was also involved in the process of amassing the emails,

‘The NSA’s Prism system offers access to all parliamentary documents and email through Microsoft Office 365 software, as a result of secret directives given to Microsoft under controversial US 2008 surveillance laws. The directives were implemented at the same time as Microsoft was selling its cloud system, Office 365, to the Houses of Parliament.’

This news might come as a shock to the uninitiated, but the truth is that using foreign data centres (and the cooperation of foreign intelligence agencies) to gain access to data that would otherwise be legally off limits is a tactic that has been regularly employed by members of the Five Eyes cooperative surveillance treaty.

Five Eyes is an alliance between English speaking nations (US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) that allows data to be collected legally by foreign intelligence and passed back to other members of the alliance for processing. This allows data to be collected despite the fact that the agency in question is technically forbidden, by law, from going after it within its own boundaries (a loophole).

Unfortunately for the people of Britain, these latest revelations are just another manifestation of Western government’s obsession with surveillance hungry policies – an invasive approach to governance that the UK’s Home Secretary (Theresa May) hopes to officialize with the snoopers’ charter.

Disturbingly, separate news has emerged this week that sheds light on the British public’s lack of understanding of the government’s proposed new legislation. A poll of British citizens has revealed that although 92% of them do know that the snoopers’ charter is likely to soon be ratified: A staggering 72% of those UK residents are clueless that the coming law will also mean an end to digital privacy in Britain.

For the last two days, the House of Commons has been debating the snoopers’ charter for the purpose of finalising the legislation’s details. Amongst other things (as it stands), the law would require ISPs to retain British Internet browsing records for a year. In the process, granting permission for a large number of British agencies to access communications in an overreaching and unregulated capacity.

To protest the proposed legislation, Open Rights Group has brought a public toilet into the City of London during the debate,

‘ORG has taken to the streets of London with a unique public toilet to give the public a taste of how dehumanising a lack of privacy can be. With the click of a button, the walls of the toilet turn transparent, exposing those inside.’

The organisation’s concept that citizens’ online activities ought to be as private as those moments they spend in the restroom seems a coherent effort towards offering an artistic representation of the UK’s dystopian future. The slightly bizarre (and yet wholly necessary) art, encourages people to wake up to the game-changing alterations to British society that the government is attempting to impose,

‘We hoped that by exposing people where they are most vulnerable we could encourage a debate about how much we value privacy and how comfortable we are with others accessing personal information without our consent.’

Considering that around 65% of the British population appears to be clueless about the contents of the Snoopers’ Charter; there can be no doubt that the effort is more than worthwhile. Especially if it manages to enlighten even a small percentage of UK residents about the consequences of the quickly approaching legislation.

Wake up to Surveillance

Are MPs out of touch when it comes to surveillance?

Joanna Cherry QC, MP, has written to the Home Secretary to express her distaste at the proposed legislation, commenting that provisions ought to be made to give,

‘extra protection to citizens who communicate with journalists, lawyers or parliamentarians.’

Although that can be seen as a reasonable request (and it certainly does pay lip service to the right side of the argument), one can’t help but be left dumbfounded and wondering: What about the rest of the law abiding populace? Why are they not granted any protection? After all, aren’t they an important part of society too?

Perhaps, at least, last year’s shock revelation that MPs are being subjected to the same surveillance as the general commoner might be an impetus for more Parliamentarians to join the chorus of voices shouting: No!

Although, by the looks of the tactics that the UK (and other Five Eyes nations) are willing to employ behind closed doors; it would appear that the legal concessions that the snoopers’ charter is seeking to codify into law are just a formality.

The “dystopian future” is already upon us and St Snowden helped to usher it in.

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