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The British Government Just Set a Dangerous Precedent for Online Spying

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Today, the British government revealed its justification for surveilling its citizens' every move on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks. UK citizens communicating using the aforementioned services are considered to be using "external communications," as the companies are not based in the UK. It's a distinction with staggering implications.

Charles Farr, the Director General of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism in the UK made known the rationale of the domestic spying program of Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in a 48 page response to a legal challenge by a coalition of civil liberties groups including Privacy International, Liberty, and the ACLU.


"The security services consider that they're entitled to read, listen and analyse all our communications on Facebook, Google and other US-based platforms. If there was any remaining doubt that our snooping laws need a radical overhaul there can be no longer. The Agencies now operate in a legal and ethical vacuum," said James Welch, the Legal Director of Liberty.

The distinction of 'external' communications versus 'internal' communications is vital in the UK when it comes to the steps needed to surveil a citizen. To intercept 'internal' communications it requires a targeted warrant with probable cause; 'external' communications may be taken at will, without the need for probable cause.


By classifying social networks as 'external' the British government can do as they please when it comes to surveilling its population. This interpretation of the law means if two UK citizens are chatting over Facebook Messenger in London, that is still considered an 'external' communication because Facebook is based in California. No matter how devious it may appear, it is technically legal, and therein lies the bigger issue.

If one of the largest intelligence agencies on Earth can spy on its citizens and claim the legal high ground, what is stopping other countries and intelligence agencies around the globe from doing the same thing? The ramifications of the justifications given by the British government may have a ripple effect throughout intelligence agencies across the globe.

Thanks to the Snowden leaks and a legal challenge by a coalition of civil liberties groups, the public has gotten a glimpse at how the GCHQ justifies its actions, but what is still unclear is how many other governments and intelligence agencies around the world agree with the GCHQ's interpretation when it comes to the classification of social networks.

If communications on social networks are considered 'external' communications by other countries, it could set a precedent that gives basically any non-US country the ability to legally spy on its citizens' online habits without resistance.


"GCHQ's announcement marks the latest attempt by an intelligence agency to twist the letter and the spirit of the law to engage in unaccountable and unchecked surveillance. Surveillance is a global problem and needs a global solution. Human rights must be protected regardless of the location, means, perpetrator, or target of that surveillance," Jochai Ben-Avie, the Policy Director at Access, tells Gizmodo.

When asked about the British government's justifications for spying on its citizens, Danny O'Brien, the International Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Gizmodo, "I think it indicates how limiting controls on spying based on geography is inevitably going to be exploited on a global internet. In the US, non-US persons don't get the protection of targeted warrants, so the US intelligence services have used that to not only spy on millions of people outside the US, but also used it as justification for mass surveillance of US [online] traffic, based on the idea that some of it contains unprotected foreign communications."


O'Brien went on to say, "In the UK, the fact you can get 'external communications' without a targeted warrant means that the UK authorities have redefined a huge chunk of UK internet use as 'external'. It's ironic that such warrants general were one of the reasons why the US split away from the UK, and now here we are, with both the US and UK governments using them on their own citizens—and then sharing the data with each other."

Thanks to the internet, a world once separated out has become much closer. The internet is not bound by borders and its users shouldn't be treated like they are doing something nefarious by their governments while they use it. It's one thing if these agencies are illegally surveilling citizens, but when it is legal, regaining any semblance of privacy becomes an all but insurmountable challenge.


Photo Credit: AP Images