Privacy International: "UK intelligence forced to reveal secret policy for mass surveillance of residents’ Facebook and Google use", PrivacyInternational.org (17 June 2014)
Britain’s top counter-terrorism official has been forced to reveal a secret Government policy [external PDF] justifying the mass surveillance of every Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Google user in the UK.
This disturbing policy was made public due to a legal challenge brought by Privacy International, Liberty, Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, Pakistani organisation Bytes for All, and five other national civil liberties organisations.1
The statement [external PDF], from Charles Farr, the Director General of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism, claims that the indiscriminate interception of UK residents’ Facebook and Google communications would be permitted under law because they are defined as ‘external communications’.
Farr’s statement, published today by the rights organisations, is the first time the Government has openly commented on how it thinks it can use the UK’s vague surveillance legal framework to indiscriminately intercept communications through its mass interception programme, TEMPORA.
The secret policy outlined by Farr defines almost all communications via Facebook and other social networking sites, as well as webmail services Hotmail and Yahoo and web searches via Google, to be ‘external communications’ because they use web-based ‘platforms’ based in the US.
The distinction between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ communications is crucial. Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (‘RIPA’), which regulates the surveillance powers of public bodies, ‘internal’ communications may only be intercepted under a warrant which relates to a specific individual or address. These warrants should only be granted where there is some suspicion of unlawful activity. However, an individual’s ‘external communications’ may be intercepted indiscriminately, even where there are no grounds to suspect any wrongdoing.
By defining the use of ‘platforms’ such as Facebook, Twitter and Google as ‘external communications’, British residents are being deprived of the essential safeguards that would otherwise be applied to their communications - simply because they are using services that are based outside the UK.
Such an approach suggests that GCHQ believes it is entitled to indiscriminately intercept all communications in and out of the British Isles. The explanations given by Mr Farr suggest that:
The legal challenge is brought following revelations made by Edward Snowden about the UK’s global digital surveillance activities. Farr is the government’s star witness in the case, which will be heard by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal between 14 and 18 July 2014. Read Privacy International's arguments here.
In addition to Farr's statement, we are publishing the witness statements from Dr Gus Hosein [external PDF], Executive Director of Privacy International, and Eric King [external PDF], Deputy Director of Privacy International. Additional evidence submitted by Privacy International, from Dr Ian Brown, Oxford Internet Institute, and Cindy Cohn, Legal Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, can be found here [external PDF] and here [external PDF].
Eric King, Deputy Director of Privacy International said:
James Welch, Legal Director of Liberty said:
Michael Bochenek, Senior Director of International Law and Policy at Amnesty International said:
Shahzad Ahmad, Country Director, Bytes for All