Revealed: British government's legal loophole to read your Facebook

GCHQ

UK government believes it has the legal right to watch activity on Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube

The government has revealed that it uses a legal loophole to justify the mass surveillance of British activity on services such as Twitter, Google, Facebook and YouTube.

The policy was made public in a witness statement from Charles Farr, the director general of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism at the Home Office, delivered in response to a legal challenge brought by a group of civil liberties organisations.

According to the document, almost all internet activities carried out by British citizens can be monitored without a warrant, as they are classified as "external communications" as defined by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).

British citizens will be alarmed to see their government justifying industrial-scale intrusion into their communications

This covers "common factual scenarios involving the use of the internet, such as a Google search, a search of YouTube for a video, a 'tweet' on Twitter, or the posting of a message on Facebook," according to Farr.

This is because the intended recipient of the "message" is a server based outside the UK. However, it does not cover email messages sent between two or more British citizens, even if they use webmail services such as Gmail or Outlook.com, as the intended recipient is the other British citizen, making it an "internal" communication under RIPA.

Privacy International, one of the joint claimants in the case, said Farr's evidence "suggests that GCHQ believes it is entitled to indiscriminately intercept all communications in and out of the British Isles".

Privacy International said the government's statement suggests it not only thinks it is entitled to scan our messages, but in fact does intercept them. The evidence from Farr suggests that "GCHQ is intercepting all communications - emails, text messages, as well as communications sent via 'platforms' such as Facebook and Google – before determining whether they fall into the 'internal' or 'external' categories."

Accountable?

Eric King, the organisation's deputy director, 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."

Michael Boschenek, senior director of international law and policy at Amnesty International, another of the co-claimants, added: "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."

The revelations come as Microsoft, supported by other tech firms, is battling to stop the US government from extracting emails from its Dublin data centre, claiming "the US government ... [shouldn't] have the power to search the content of email stored overseas" if it does not have the power to search properties overseas.

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