Thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know that the NSA and the US government have used every linguistic contortion, legal loophole and, when those failed to meet their needs, outright breaking of laws in order to achieve its ultimate goal of sweeping up all the communications on the planet, and then lying about it.
But it seems like the British equivalent of the NSA, the GCHQ, may be even worse in how it goes about its business. The UK, like the US, has at least on paper stricter legal controls on the spying of its own citizens than it has on foreigners. But as a result of a legal battle waged by the group Privacy International, it has been revealed that the GCHQ plays as fast and loose with the interpretation of laws as the NSA. The GCHQ claims it can spy without court-ordered warrants on UK citizens who communicate via services such as Google and Facebook since those companies are foreign.
Charles Farr, director general of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, told PI that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and web searches on Google – as well as webmail services such as Hotmail and Yahoo – were classified as “external communications”, which meant they could be intercepted without the need for additional legal clearance.
Internal communications between citizens can only be intercepted when a targeted warrant is issued. Warrants must be signed by a minister and can only be issued when there is suspicion of illegal activity.
But when someone searches for something on Google or posts on Facebook they are sending information overseas – constituting an act of external communication that could be collected under a broader warrant which does not need to be signed by a minister, explained Mr Farr in a 48-page written statement.
But civil liberty groups were outraged by the revelations.
James Welch, legal director of human rights group 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.”
Meanwhile, Eric King, deputy director of Privacy International, said the revelation showed that spy agencies operated under their own laws.
“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.”
These agencies create secret interpretations of the laws that suit their purposes and then publicly claim that all their actions are law-abiding. This shows the need for the kinds of transparency that Snowden provided.