The British government has responded to a lawsuit by privacy and civil liberty advocates by releasing a 48-page document that justifies what it calls "legal" spying of its citizens who use foreign-based internet sites like Google and YouTube and social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and others.
The document itself (pdf) is a signed legal statement by Charles Farr, director general of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, which describes how his office has interpreted UK statutes in order to justify state surveillance by defining use of web platforms not based in the UK as ‘external communications’ not subject to normal privacy protections enjoyed by British citizens.
"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?" —James Welch, legal director of Liberty
According to Privacy International—one of the ten groups which filed the challenge—Farr's represents 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 group says that the distinction between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ communications is crucial, because under the laws which regulate the surveillance powers of public bodies, ‘internal’ communications may only be intercepted under a warrant which relates to a specific individual or address while an individual’s ‘external communications’ may be intercepted indiscriminately, even where there are no grounds to suspect any wrongdoing.
Reporting on Tuesday afternoon by the Guardian—which first reported on GCHQ's TEMPORA program utilizing documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden reporting—included reactions from organizations involved with the suit:
Eric King, deputy director of Privacy International, said: "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.
"Moreover, 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."
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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. The agencies now operate in a legal and ethical vacuum; why the deafening silence from our elected representatives?"
Michael Bochenek, senior director of international law and policy at Amnesty International, said: "British citizens will be alarmed to see their government justifying industrial-scale intrusion into their communications. The public should demand an end to this wholesale violation of their right to privacy."
And in a series of tweets, editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger of the Guardian highlighted key portions of the government document:
Anyone doing a Google search in UK is guilty of an "external communication" under RIPA s20 (par134) https://t.co/Cfs0ZhDs9T— alan rusbridger (@arusbridger) June 17, 2014
If you post on Facebook, and the Fb data centre is outside UK, then you have committed an "external communication" (par137)— alan rusbridger (@arusbridger) June 17, 2014
Twitter largely treated by UK govt as "external communications" because Twitter infrastructure mainly in US (par138)— alan rusbridger (@arusbridger) June 17, 2014
Rusbridger also took this jab at the British government for their continued stance on the program's secrecy:
Govt refuses to confirm of deny if GCHQ Tempora programme actually exists… but *if* it does, it is definitely legal— alan rusbridger (@arusbridger) June 17, 2014