Next time you’re using Facebook or Google, a UK spy could be looking at your posts and searches.
A top counter-terrorism official admitted that it is government policy to carry out mass surveillance of every Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google user in the country.
The revelation was made public after a court case was brought by a number of civil rights organisations including Privacy International, Liberty, Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, Pakistani organisation Bytes for All, and five other national civil liberties organisations.
In a statement, Charles Farr, the Director General of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism said that interception of Facebook and Google communications by users in the UK was permitted under law because they are defined as “external communications”.
The statement is the first time the government has put on record just how far it thinks it can go within the current legal framework in order to carry out surveillance on the entire population.
The policy classes Facebook, Google, Yahoo and a lot of other web services as external communications as they are based in the US, outside of the UK.
Such a distinction is important as under RIPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act), which regulates the surveillance powers of public bodies, ‘internal’ communications may only be intercepted under a warrant which relates to a specific individual or address.
This means that external communications may be intercepted without a warrant, even when there is no evidence of wrongdoing. Such a definition, according to Privacy International, means that safeguards that would otherwise be applied to online communications are being sidestepped because services like Facebook and Google are based outside of the UK.
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
“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.”