British gov’t reportedly intercepting conversations from Facebook, Twitter, and Google

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The British government is reportedly intercepting communications from social networks, emails and text messages even when there is no suspicion of wrongdoing. According to a report from Privacy International, British spy agencies have been monitoring the Facebook and Twitter activity of every Internet user in the country. Authorities are also said to be collecting data on people’s web searches and emails.

The British government’s rationale for such a wide-ranging information collection program was detailed in a statement from Charles Farr, the director general of the country’s Office for Security and Counter Terrorism. The organization, along with Liberty, Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and Bytes for All, obtained the government documents through a lawsuit. 

Britain justifies its surveillance program by defining the social network communications of citizens as “external communications” since companies like Facebook and Google are based in the United States. Under the country’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), internal communications can only be obtained with a warrant and only when there is suspicion of wrongdoing. External communications, on the other hand, can be intercepted indiscriminately.

The intelligence agency GCHQ intercepts all social media activity, emails and text messages.

The government is said to apply the classification of external communications in a very broad manner. The intelligence agency GCHQ intercepts all social media activity, emails and text messages before determining whether it falls under internal or external communications. The organization classifies almost all Facebook communications and Google searches as external even when the people involved in the conversation are in the UK. 

“From the point of view of the privacy interests of those individuals who are subject to investigative measures, I do not consider that a workable distinction can be drawn between such intelligence and the three other forms of forms of intelligence (derived from covert human intelligence sources, derived from or constituting records of audio or visual surveillance and derived from covert property searches) … In particular, I do not consider the that intelligence in the form of (or that is derived from) communications and communications data is in some general sense more personal or private than those other forms of  intelligence,” Farr said. 

The UK government’s broad approach is being disputed by legal experts, who consider the rationale as a weak justification for mass surveillance.

“I was surprised to read in the UK government’s response to Privacy International’s claim that they considered messages between UK users of services such as Facebook to “external communications” that can be accessed in bulk … It is not in my view supported by the Interception of Communications Code of Practice, case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union or ministerial statements in the House of Lords during the passages of the (RIPA) Act,” said Ian Brown, a senior research fellow at Oxford University, in a statement.

Farr’s 48-page statement can be found online. Aside from justifying the GCHQ’s program, he also mentioned the NSA’s surveillance efforts, particularly the secret program PRISM.

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