While much of the world’s attention is focused on the surreptitious snooping of the NSA, and much of the privacy news of late emanates from the US, we are learning that Britain’s GCHQ has been engaged in hacking computers not only with impunity but with government sanction. A recent disclosure by activist group, Privacy International, alluded to two court cases initiated last year against GCHQ that challenged what amounts to invasive, state-sponsored hacking.
What is most worrisome to many in the privacy-loving community is that these intrusions appear to have the blessing of the UK government, and allow computer break-ins regardless of location in the world. In a document called Open Response, the government outlines the broad authority it has given UK intelligence services to infiltrate personal devices, the internet and social media websites of “intelligence targets”, even if there is no threat to national security or suspicion of a crime.
Privacy International stated that,
“The British government has admitted its intelligence services have the broad power to hack into personal phones, computers and communication networks and claims they are legally justified to hack anyone, anywhere in the world even if the target is not a threat to national security nor suspected of any crime. In the document, the government outlines its broad authority to infiltrate personal devices and networks we use every day. Such powers are a massive invasion of privacy. Hacking is the modern equivalent of entering someone’s house, searching through her (sic)filing cabinets, diaries and correspondence and planting devices to permit constant surveillance in the future.”
GCHQ published the Open Response to legitimize its actions, saying that any intrusions must be authorized by a Secretary of State and are limited by strict tests of necessity and legitimacy. It further emphasized that all of GCHQ’s activities were subject to vigorous oversight by the Intelligence Services Commissioner.
Privacy International is unmoved by the response saying,
“The government has been deep in the hacking business for nearly a decade, yet they have never once been held accountable for their actions. They have granted themselves incredible powers to break into the devices we hold near and dear, the phones and computers that are so integral to our lives. This suspicionless (sic) hacking must come to an end and the activities of our intelligence agencies must be brought under the rule of law.”
Other groups have sided with Privacy International in its disputes with GCHQ. They include Riseup (US), GreenNet (UK), Greenhost (Netherlands), Mango (Zimbabwe), Jinbonet (Korea) MayFirst/PeopleLink (US) and the Chaos Computer Club (Germany).
We have read in recent days about censorship and repression in China and Thailand. One would expect this kind of behaviour from oppressive regimes or paranoid, fledgling dictatorships, but when established democratic government such as the UK becomes involved in such shenanigans, it is cause for alarm, a call to action, and a reason to be more vigilant.