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Sarah UKFast | Account Manager

British Govt: Mass Surveillance is (sometimes) OK

24 June 2014 by Jenn Granger

Despite the fact that the year following Snowden’s revelations has been a sliding scale of security fears and mistrust, the UK government is really doing nothing to endear itself to its public right now. In the first detailed defence of its policies since the revelations, Charles Farr, the director general of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, has said surveillance of any data not originating from British soil is legal because it counts as “external communications”. Which technically gives them the right to read all sorts of personal stuff. Just sayin’. 


We might have thought that the interception of communications within this country was covered by certain laws and that warrants were only granted when law enforcement suspected the individual in question of illegal activity. We were wrong.

The mass interception and surveillance of UK citizens’ activity on non-UK based online services (like, say, all of my favourite things: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google etc.) is legal, according to Farr. So, essentially, even though you may be in the UK, some emails, Facebook messages and Google searches etc. can be intercepted, even if the police don’t suspect you of anything shady.

On the other hand, under British law, “internal communication” (phone calls and texts, for example) between people based in the country can only be accessed when there is suspicion of illegal activity; and they need a government-issued warrant, overseen by the courts, to have a rummage in your business.

Farr says the ‘crazy’ paths that data can take across the internet justifies all the snooping: “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 communication.” Kind of a carpet-bombing approach. He does say that these private communications will only be examined if other evidence suggests that it needs to be, and that tighter warrants are needed to see these, but also admits that some private communications may get caught in their net.

Unsurprisingly, lots of people aren’t happy. Advocacy groups including Privacy International are challenging the law, and former UK security minister Pauline Neville-Jones has called for internet mass-surveillance laws to be tightened up. She’s also unhappy with the way police are “warranting themselves”, saying that there should be lawyers on call 24 hours a day to assess applications for surveillance warrants, which isn’t a bad idea – especially when the fine print on so many of the sites we use is the size of ants! Small ants!

Next month, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal will hold hearings on the situation. Farr is the UK government’s first witness in the case, between 14th -18th July, and apparently the court often rules in favour of the government in similar cases, so watch this space. On the plus side, this is one of the most detailed examinations we’ve ever had of government data dealings; and as data is such a blanket term, that translates into: the interest they take in our private lives. So, whilst this news may be unwelcome, at least it’s acknowledging that scrutiny is needed.

Find out which companies protect – or at least try to protect – your data, and if you have any security concerns regarding your solution call us on 0208 045 4945 or contact your account manager.