A successful legal challenge has forced the UK’s top counter-terrorism official to reveal the (until now) secret government policy that allows the GCHQ to intercept British residents’ emails, text messages, and communications sent via Facebook and other social networking sites and webmail services, as well as web searches made via Google – all without needing a warrant.
Charles Farr, the Director General of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism, ha released a statement detailing the legal basis on which its mass interception programme TEMPORA is allowed to exist and continue.
Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) of 2000, internal communications between British residents located within the UK can only be monitored if a specific warrant is issued, and there is reason to suspect the person is breaking the law.
On the other hand, “external communications” can be monitored indiscriminately under a “general warrant.”
Farr’s statement revealed that the UK government considers almost all Facebook and other social media communications, and Google searches to fall in the “external communications” category, even when such communications are between two people in the UK.
The reason why they fall into this category is because Facebook, Google, Twitter, Yahoo and other sites and services use web-based “platforms” based in the US.
“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?” commented James Welch, Legal Director of Liberty.
“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,” said Eric King, Deputy Director of Privacy International.
The group of organizations that brought the legal challenge include Privacy International, Liberty, Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, Pakistani organisation Bytes for All, and five civil liberties organizations from Canada, Egypt, Hungary, Ireland, and South Africa.