UK GCHQ collected emails of UK, US journalists

British intelligence agency GCHQ has, at least on one occasion, slurped up emails sent by and to journalists working for a number of high-profile news organizations and shared their contents on its own intranet, the Guardian reported. The revelation is based on documents from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s cache.

The collection was apparently done as a test in November 2008, and was executed via one of the agency’s numerous taps on the fibre-optic cables that support the Internet. In less than ten minutes, the agency gathered some 70,000 emails received and sent by journalists and editors at the BBC, the Guardian, the New York Times, Le Monde, Reuters, the Sun and the Washington Post.

While it’s unclear whether this test was intentionally made to target journalists, the fact remains that the agency collected sensitive communication of a group of professionals which, along with lawyers, doctors, Members of Parliament and priests, should have the assurance that their confidential communication is safe from snooping efforts mounted by their own government.

“The mails appeared to have been captured and stored as the output of a then-new tool being used to strip irrelevant data out of the agency’s tapping process,” the Guardian’s James Ball noted.

Also on Monday more than 100 editors from every UK newspaper have signed a letter addressed to Prime Minister David Cameron, protesting the fact that law enforcement is abusing the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) to uncover lawful sources and that the Disclosure of Communications Data Code of Practice currently proposed does little to curb that practice.

“The Act was intended for tackling serious crime such as terrorism but it is clearly being used by police in relation to relatively minor crimes,” they say.

“It is in everyone’s interest that the state recognises the over-arching importance of protecting the confidentiality of journalists’ sources. Public sector whistleblowers will not come forward to journalists in future if law enforcement agencies have the power to view journalists’ phone records at will,” they pointed out.

Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian’s editor, forced the point in a speech he delivered at the Royal United Services Institute in London on Monday, in which he noted that an extension of police powers in this case would be devastating.

“Journalism, which relies on unauthorised sources for much that is good and valuable, would be changed forever in this country,” he said.

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UK GCHQ collected emails of UK, US journalists