The UK Government can legally spy on UK citizens’ YouTube, Faceboook and Twitter activity and even Google searches, according to a new statement.
Writing in response to criticism from pressure groups, Charles Farr, director general of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism, claimed that this surveillance is legal because such communications are classed as “external”.
For example, a Google search is viewed as a message between the searcher’s computer and a Google web server.
If the web server is abroad, this counts as an “external communication”. Posting updates to Facebook, or tweets to Twitter, also count as external communications.
Some 88.6% of all web searches in the UK are made through Google. 24 million people in the UK use Facebook every day, according to the social network, and 15 million people use Twitter – around a quarter of the population.
Farr also said that “it will be apparent that the only practical way in which the Government can ensure that it is able to obtain at least a fraction of the type of communication in which it is interested is to provide for the interception of a large volume of communications”.
However, emails sent between British nationals are deemed internal communications, even if the message is routed through web servers located abroad.
Farr would not confirm or deny whether the government does actually intercept such external communications, arguing merely that it was legal to do so, under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.
Internal communications can only be intercepted under a warrant. External communications, though, can be intercepted indiscriminately.
The statement was in response to a legal challenge made by Privacy International, Liberty, Amnesty International, and other NGOs and charities.
Privacy International said: “British residents are being deprived of the essential safeguards that would otherwise be applied to their communications – simply because they are using services that are based outside the UK.”
Addressing concerns that analysts might look at the private affairs of law abiding UK citizens, Farr quoted the Interception of Communications Commissioner’s 2013 annual report which said: “The analyst, being only human and having a job to do, will have forgotten (if he or she ever took it in) what the irrelevant communication contained.”
View the statement here