Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Mass surveillance of UK citizens on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google is legal, says government’s top anti-terror chief Charles Farr

The Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) building on the west of Cheltenham
The Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) building on the west of Cheltenham

In the first detailed defence of the UK’s surveillance policies since the Snowden revelations, Charles Farr, the director general of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, has said that the surveillance of popular websites, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google, is legal because their US origins means they count as “external communications”.

In a 48-page statement issued in response to a legal challenge brought by Privacy International, Liberty, Amnesty international and seven other civil liberties groups, Farr admits that the government allows the interception of a massive range of online activities without a warrant.

It was previously thought that the interception of communications within the country was covered by section 8(1) of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), with warrants granted when law enforcement suspected the individual in question of illegal activity.

However, by defining these web services as “external communications," they fall under the general warrants of section 8(4) of RIPA. This means that a range of activities – from emails to Facebook messages to Google searches – can all be intercepted even when the police have no grounds to suspect the individuals of wrongdoing.

Farr argues that the convoluted paths that data can take across the internet justifies an indiscriminate approach to data collection: “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 communication.”

Referring to the concern that analysts would therefore be able to read the private communications of law abiding citizens, Farr said: "The analyst, being only human and having a job to do, will have forgotten (if he or she ever took it in) what the irrelevant communication contained."

Eric King, deputy director of Privacy International, said: “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, said: “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.”

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Further reading

Facebook status updates and Twitter posts intercepted by UK Government 

Vodafone: governments use secret wires to listen to all conversations on mobile network 

Snooping tools GCHQ could use to hack your phone's microphone, camera and keypad

52% wary of expressing their views online, one in three do not feel free from government surveillance

GCHQ ‘using online viruses and honey traps to discredit targets’ 

GCHQ given access to US 'Dishfire' system

NSA can spy on computers not connected to internet using radio waves

BT 'refuses to deny data handover'

GCHQ 'harvested webcam images' 

GCHQ ‘using online viruses and honey traps to discredit targets’ 

Spymasters swoop on Angry Birds

US bid to stop spying on its spying 

Obama vows NSA phone data reform

GCHQ given access to US 'Dishfire' system that reads hundreds of millions of text messages

Internet founder hails Snowden 

Snowden gives TV Christmas message

NSA and GCHQ agents acted as elves and gnomes to spy on gamers

Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales: Edward Snowden is a hero 

NSA spied on pornography use and ‘online promiscuity’ to discredit those with radical views

GCHQ ran hotel surveillance ring to spy on diplomats and delegations

GCHQ set up fake LinkedIn pages to spy on mobile phone giants using using 'Quantum Insert' technique

Google engineers on NSA and GCHQ surveillance: "F*** these guys"

Germany demands explanation from British ambassador over GCHQ's 'secret listening post in the heart of Berlin'

Britain’s GCHQ has ‘secret listening post in the heart of Berlin to eavesdrop on the seat of German power'

Civil liberties groups claim British spy agency GCHQ broke European laws by hacking millions of citizens’ internet data

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