GCHQ: The British Are Spying On Us More Than the NSA Is

I. GCHQ: The British Are Spying On Us More Than the NSA Is

By Aubrey Bloomfield


When will it end? Fresh revelations from Edward Snowden leaks about the widespread extent of government surveillance continue to come. Following on from the Guardian’s publication on Thursday of documents showing how the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) allows the National Security Agency (NSA) to obtain data from domestic U.S. communications without a warrant, on Friday the Guardian revealed that the British equivalent of the NSA, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), is collecting and storing “vast quantities of global email messages, Facebook posts, internet histories and calls” and sharing them with the NSA. NSA analysts reportedly “share direct access to the system.”

The existence of the GCHQ program is the latest revelation from Snowden’s leaks and shines further light on the murky world of government surveillance as part of his attempt to expose what he called “the largest program of suspicionless surveillance in human history.” And if the previous revelations about NSA practices were not bad enough, the role of the GCHQ is apparently even bigger than that of the NSA.

On Sunday the Guardian published documents showing that the GCHQ had intercepted the communications of foreign politicians during the 2009 G20 summit in London. Friday’s revelation, however, is even bigger. According to the Guardian, the:

“Sheer scale of the agency’s ambition is reflected in the titles of its two principal components: Mastering the Internet and Global Telecoms Exploitation, aimed at scooping up as much online and telephone traffic as possible. This is all being carried out without any form of public acknowledgement or debate.”

Speaking after the exposure of NSA’s PRISM program, to which the GCHQ reportedly has access to, British Prime Minister David Cameron argued that he was “satisfied that we have intelligence agencies that do a fantastic job to keep us safe and operate within the law.” Foreign Secretary William Hague labelled claims that the GCHQ uses its relationship with the NSA to get around British law “baseless,” and said that law-abiding citizens had “nothing to fear” when it comes to government surveillance. As vague and unreassuring as the British government response was then, in much the same way that the U.S. government’s response has been vague and unreassuring, it is even more unreassuring now.

Under operation Tempora, which has been running for 18 months, the GCHQ has been tapping into more than 200 fiber-optic cables, each of which “carries data at a rate of 10 gigabits per second,” and was able to “process data from at least 46 of them at a time.” That potentially amounts to the ability to monitor as much information as “all the books in the British Library 192 times every 24 hours.” Intercept probes were attached to the fibre-optic cables “under secret agreements with commercial companies,” some of which may have been paid for their cooperation. GCHQ lawyers even boasted in their legal briefing to the NSA about how Britain has a “light oversight regime compared with the US.”

Through the program, the:

“GCHQ and the NSA are consequently able to access and process vast quantities of communications between entirely innocent people, as well as targeted suspects. This includes recordings of phone calls, the content of email messages, entries on Facebook and the history of any internet user’s access to websites – all of which is deemed legal, even though the warrant system was supposed to limit interception to a specified range of targets.”

As a slide from a top secret briefing to GCHQ intelligence analysts reveals, they were even encouraged to “have fun” spying on people and to “make the most of it.”

Image credit: the Guardian

Snowden argues that the issue of rampant, suspicionless government surveillance is “not just a US problem. The UK has a huge dog in this fight. They [GCHQ] are worse than the U.S.”

The British government, as the U.S. government has done, will no doubt defend these latest revelations and say that the programme is legal and is helping to prevent legitimate threats. If they are technically legal, however, that is even more of a stinging indictment on how far the law has been corrupted in the name of national security and protecting the public. Legal or not, the scale of this surveillance is shocking and represents a massive erosion of civil liberties. Clearly, “mastering the internet” was not just a clever catchphrase thought up for an engaging slide presentation but an explicit goal.

II. GCHQ’s spying is worse than that of the web giants

John Green takes issue with former GCHQ head David Omand’s statement that ‘web giants are a bigger privacy threat than the state’

Sir David Omand leaving the Royal Courts of Justice in August 2003 after giving evidence at the Hutton inquiry. Photograph: Dan Chung/The Guardian

Thu 10 Oct 2019 13.02 EDT
Last modified on Thu 10 Oct 2019 13.05 EDT

The former head of GCHQ, David Omand, is being particularly tendentious when he maintains that “web giants are a bigger privacy threat than the state” (Report, 9 October). He says state security agencies are “extraordinarily strictly regulated” and that “warrants have to be signed by a senior judge”. So how come GCHQ was intimately involved in several illegal spying activities?

He also singularly fails to point out that the big difference between a state spying on its citizens and internet companies is that the former have the means of repression in their hands whereas the big internet companies do not. The material they collect only becomes a threat when it is passed on to the state or political organisations.

In 2004 the Guardian reported on the revelations of former GCHQ translator Katharine Gun, who talked of a dirty tricks campaign by GCHQ to bug the offices and homes in New York of UN diplomats from the six “swing states”, countries whose support would be vital if Washington and London were to win a security council resolution authorising the invasion of Iraq.

And again, in February 2015, the secretive investigatory powers tribunal declared that GCHQ was found to be “unlawfully spying on British citizens” and that this “breached their human rights”.

Those are only two blatant examples of GCHQ’s misuse of collected data. There is undoubtedly much more we don’t know. How does all this square with Omand’s bland pronouncements?
John Green

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III. British Intelligence is Legally Allowed to Hack Anyone, Court Says

February 12, 2016Swati Khandelwal

Hacking of computers, smartphones and networks in the United Kingdom or abroad by the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) is LEGAL, the UK’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) ruled.

So, the UK is giving clean chit to its intelligence agency to spy on its people as well as people living abroad.

Now, How is that okay?

The British spying nerve center GCHQ has won a major court case in defense of the agency’s persistent hacking programs.

After revelations by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden about the extent of spying by the US and the UK, Privacy International and seven Internet Service Providers (ISPs) launched a legal challenge against the GCHQ’s hacking operations.

The case alleged that the British spying agency was breaking European law and violating fundamental warrant protections by its too intrusive and persistent surveillance actions.

GCHQ Admitted its Hacking Practices

Though GCHQ “neither confirm nor deny” the existence of such operations, the case made headlines in December last year when GCHQ admitted to its persistent hacking programs, “within and outside the UK,” for the first time during the case hearings.

However, a panel of five members of the IPT handed down the judgment on Friday, ruling that the computer network exploitation that may involve activating microphones and cameras on devices remotely without the owner’s knowledge is legal and does not breach human rights.

According to the senior judges, GCHQ’s hacking efforts had “raised a number of serious questions,” but a “proper balance” has been struck between the privacy of individuals and the need of the intelligence agency to investigate crimes.

Here’s what the lengthy ruling [PDF] from the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) reads:

“The use of computer network exploitation by GCHQ, now avowed, has obviously raised a number of serious questions, which we have done our best to resolve in this Judgment.
Plainly it again emphasises the requirement for a balance to be drawn between the urgent need of the Intelligence Agencies to safeguard the public and the protection of an individual’s privacy and/or freedom of expression.”

GCHQ’s Hacking Power

The agency’s hacking efforts had allowed the agents to tap into almost any electronic equipment, including computers, servers, routers, laptops, mobile phones and even Internet of Thing (IoT) devices such as smart toys, smart TVs and more.

GCHQ also said it had:

Installed malware
Remotely turned ON cameras and microphone
Installed Keylogger that records every pressed key on a keyboard
Tracked suspects’ locations via GPS
Remotely stole documents from target devices

Privacy International, which brought the case, is, of course, very disappointed with the ruling, and so are we. How could a country decide spying people outside its country?

The group will be challenging the decision on the grounds that it fragmented the European Convention on Human Rights when it comes to spying people within but outside of the UK.

“This case exposed not only these secret practices but also the undemocratic manner in which the Government sought to backdate powers to do this under the radar,” Scarlet Kim, legal officer at London-based Privacy International said in a statement.

“Just because the Government magically produces guidelines for hacking should not legitimize this practice.”

British Foreign Secretary: Ruling is Fair

However, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, welcomed the ruling, saying the ruling was fair and took into account invasive actions that are necessary for the security of UK.

“Once again, the law and practice around our Security and Intelligence Agencies’ capabilities and procedures have been scrutinized by an independent body and been confirmed to be lawful and proportionate,” Hammond said.

So, once again the threat of terrorism saved the GCHQ’s ass, as the judgement says the capabilities operated by the agency lie “at the very heart of the attempts of the State to safeguard the citizen against terrorist attack.”

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