It has been revealed that GCHQ, has the ability to request large amounts of un-analysed communications from foreign intelligence agencies without first obtaining a warrant. The documents, obtained in the course of a case brought before the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), show that the use of a warrant was not necessary if it is “not technically feasible” for GCHQ to obtain one.
This is not the first revelation from the case, which was brought by a number of groups including Liberty and Privacy International. In June this year it was revealed that messages sent via platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are classed as “external communications” even if they have been sent between UK citizens. This means that there is no need to apply for a warrant before collecting the information.
As it stands the legislation being used to authorize surveillance was passed before the advent of social media, which revolutionized the way in which we communicate. When MPs were debating this bill they could not have been expected to anticipate the dramatic change in how we would communicate with each other after the launch of Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006). As a result RIPA has not kept pace with technology and is now open to worrying interpretations.
The need for reform in this area has been highlighted by the Home Affairs Select Committee (PDF), the Deputy Prime Minister and the Shadow Home Secretary. At present there are three separate inquiries into how surveillance legislation is operating. They are being conducted by the Intelligence and Security Committee, David Anderson: the Government’s Independent Review of Terrorism Legislation and the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
Big Brother Watch have repeatedly highlighted the fact that RIPA is now seriously out of date. Earlier this month our Director gave evidence to the ISC on the subject. Separately we have also submitted evidence to the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation’s inquiry.
Big Brother Watch, Open Rights Group and English PEN have also lodged a case challenging the UK government’s surveillance of our data at the European Court of Human Rights. You can keep track of the progress of the case at the dedicated Privacy not Prism campaign site.
It is now more important than ever that the Government begins to be more open about how these powers are used. Last week Big Brother Watch released a report, looking at the Police’s use of directed surveillance under RIPA. It showed the urgent need for greater transparency and accountability. Without these things it will remain difficult to properly inform the public and to engage in a proper and thorough debate about the use of such tactics.