Spying Without Safeguards, the British Way


Although the past few years since the Edward Snowden revelations have shown that the US government has been part of some rather shady surveillance of its own citizens, the idea to have something on just about everyone in the country isn't one that only took root in America. In fact many of its allies have taken part in similar snooping of their citizens.

Credit: Pixabay
Credit: Pixabay

We've heard reports of Australia and New Zealand doing it, as well as Canada, as part of the US-lead “Five Eyes,” coalition, which can be traced back to the close of World War II. In more recent, though hardly less historical times, we now know Britain began a campaign of surveillance that was not only expansive, but recently ruled entirely illegal.

The surveillance in question relates to the collection of what was known as “Bulk Communications Data,” (BCD), which British intelligence agencies GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 began collecting as far back as 1998. The activity relates to things like the electoral register and phone metadata -- the who called who and when, rather than the content of the conversations.

Although the obvious reason for collecting such data was to use it in counter-criminal investigations, a recent ruling by a panel set up to look into British spying -- the Investigatory Powers Tribunal -- stated that none of it was legal, because it breached fundamental human rights to privacy. It highlighted a lack of safeguards and little oversight from higher-ups in any of the related intelligence agencies.

While this news alone left a sour taste in the mouths of privacy campaigners, it gets worse. Along with the BCD, British intelligence agencies began collecting even more data in 2006. This information was known as Bulk Personal Datasets and it covered everything from the contents of communications, to financial activity -- far more private information.

Yet again, no safeguards or oversight were really in place, with commissioners given no real way to vet who was using the surveillance tools or how they were being utilized. Detailed audits weren't conducted either.

While you might expect some big fall out from such a damning ruling by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, its eventual conclusion is that relevant safeguards were put in place when the various surveillance methods were brought to light by whistleblowing leaks. It suggests no action be taken.

Organizations that helped launch the initial investigation, including Privacy International, have called for heads to roll over this ruling, suggesting that the fact that the tribunal has chosen not to act at this time is quite a coincidence. It comes at a time when the British government is pushing a new piece of legislation forward, known as the Investigatory Powers Bill. It would extend government surveillance powers and even make mass hardware hacking legal. In some cases, even without a warrant if judged to be an emergency by the Home Secretary.

Better yet, the newly appointed (unelected) Prime Minister, Theresa May, who came to power following the previous PM stepping down after the Brexit vote, championed this legislation for years and has recently made a giant push to pull the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights, giving her government control over what its replacement contains.

This, despite the fact that Britain was one of the main architects of the original EU Convention on Human Rights.

The question now is whether the convention's Article 8, which defines the right to privacy, will make it into the new bill.

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Jon Martindale, Technology Journalist

Jon Martindale is a technology journalist and hardware reviewer, having been covering new developments in the field for most of his professional career. In that time he's tested the latest and greatest releases from the big hardware companies of the world, as well as writing about new software releases, industry movements,and Internet activism.

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Re: Vanishing civil liberties in the UK
  • 11/14/2016 5:17:45 PM
NO RATINGS

Yes, very curious why the candidates didn't bring up privacy as an issue. Maybe "let sleeping dogs lie?" Just don't breach the subect if the public at large is not yet on to how much government will want to find out about everyone and everything if given the chance to do it without oversight?

Re: Vanishing civil liberties in the UK
  • 11/8/2016 8:15:50 AM
NO RATINGS

@Lyndon. That makes me realize that I don't recall either of our two stellar presidential candidates ever discussing privacy policy.

Re: Vanishing civil liberties in the UK
  • 11/7/2016 4:41:47 PM
NO RATINGS

..

Jim writes


The irony is that there are people in the US who wish our country adopted the view of the EU (as Jon mentions, a view that the UK helped to define) that privacy should be assumed by those who collect data -- privacy as a human right. Yet now the UK appears to be shifting to a view that privacy should be in the eye of the data holder.


 

For some time, leaders and officials in the UK and the USA have pointed to each other as models of policy precedent. In a "race to the bottom", this doesn't bode well ...

 

Re: Vanishing civil liberties in the UK
  • 11/3/2016 8:38:36 AM
NO RATINGS

@Lyndon. True the US and UK seem to be in a race to the bottom in the case of privacy. The irony is that there are people in the US who wish our country adopted the view of the EU (as Jon mentions, a view that the UK helped to define) that privacy should be assumed by those who collect data -- privacy as a human right. Yet now the UK appears to be shifting to a view that privacy should be in the eye of the data holder.

Vanishing civil liberties in the UK
  • 11/3/2016 7:12:40 AM
NO RATINGS

..

The more news I process about civil liberties encroachment in the UK, the more I have the sense the country is in a "race to the bottom" with the USA. 

The ongoing campaign against civil liberties by UK authorities really grabbed my attention back in 2005 with the London Metropolitan Police assassination of Jean Charles da Silva e de Menezes, a Brazilian on an extended visa riding to work on a London Tube (subway) train. Although the murder was officially deemed a "mistake", none of the police agents was ever prosecuted.

In light of this rather extreme abuse of civil liberties (i.e. a team of police assassins jumping on a train and summarily executing an innocent passenger with no questions asked), the Bulk Communications Data collection operation Jon Martindale describes almost pales in comparison. But this comprehensive dragnet for personal information has been huge.

As the Wired article that Jon Martindale links reports,


BCD consists of the 'where, when and what' of messages sent between individuals. BPD allow officials to collect mass datasets that could cover health, tax, and electoral information. Both types of datasets have been used as part of criminal investigations, but have been criticised by privacy advocates for being overly intrusive.

The tribunal added that the massive datasets (BPD) "include considerable volumes of data about biographical details, commercial and financial activities, communications and travel".


 

As Martindale's blog article further reports,


Along with the BCD, British intelligence agencies began collecting even more data in 2006. This information was known as Bulk Personal Datasets and it covered everything from the contents of communications, to financial activity -- far more private information.


"Spying Without Safeguards" indeed ... but would I really feel that much more comfortable if those snooping on me did so with more "safeguards"?

 

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