A hearing which opened in London on Monday has seen previously unreleased documents which detail the extent of the UK Governments bulk data collections.
The hearing is at the Investigatory Powers Tribunal and is expected to last for a week. It comes as a result of a challenge to the practice by the campaign group Privacy International.
Privacy International are raising the Governments exploitation of the Telecommunications Act 1984 (oh irony of ironies!). This legislation was intended to enable the sale of British Telecom to private investors.
But it also snuck into law a variety of powers for the Government to demand data from all telecommunications companies, not just BT. The clause in question is Article 94 which awarded intelligence agencies powers of surveillance, eavesdropping, and bulk data collection. It includes practically no oversight or safeguards, and of course was passed long before anyone could envisage the data-centric world in which we live today.
Dr. Julian Huppert, a former Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman who now lectures at Cambridge University, said of the clause that it is “an incredibly broad power that essentially allows any secretary of state to require any telecommunications company to do, basically, anything.”
The documents which have been released during the hearing contains evidence of the systematic data collection of phone calls and online activity being undertaken by MI5, MI6, and GCHQ under this piece of legislation.
They suggest that the three intelligence agencies collected data on every single British citizen. The information gathered about phone calls included details of their location, telephone numbers dialed and received, and the metadata of the call (which means the date, time, and duration of each call).
The extent of their online data collection is even more shocking. The intelligence agencies collected details of IP Addresses visited, browser histories, instant messaging data, and physical post data.
In the dark
The law requires that Parliament is informed every time it is used unless to do so would compromise national security interests. Needless to say, until very recently Parliament has never been informed its use.
There are also no records of when and how the law has been approved and implemented. But an accepted reason for its use is to facilitate diplomatic relations with our allies. This means it is quite conceivable that the law has been used to facilitate surveillance operations at the request of the US Government or other overseas countries.
The proceedings follow in the footsteps of an earlier Privacy International report, released in April, which put out another large number of damaging documents. This included confirmation that successive Home Secretaries had been approving the bulk collection of personal communications data since at least 2005, without the issue every being discussed in Parliament or in public.
The current proposals included in the Investigatory Powers Bill, currently making its way through Parliament, would move these powers onto a fresh footing. But this doesn’t take away from the fact that, according to Privacy International, the British Government has been collecting data on all its citizens systematically and in bulk for at least 18 years. And it has been doing so with no accountability or oversight in place.
As Millie Graham Wood, legal officer at Privacy International, said: “Today’s disclosures provide a far more detailed and worrying picture of the vast collection of bulk personal datasets and bulk communications data by the intelligence agencies.” She went on to argue that the intelligence agencies had basically been doing whatever they wanted to for years.
The outcome of this Investigatory Powers Tribunal hearing will not be known until the end of the week, so it remains to be seen if there could be any repercussions for any individuals or agencies involved in this practice. As the practice was written into the Telecommunications Act 1984, it has to be expected that this is unlikely.
But it will not take away the fact that this revelation, supported by reams of written evidence, which further undermine the already much-damaged relationship between the British people and the Intelligence Agencies who are supposed to be protecting them.
More and more people are eager to ensure that their communications information remains private. It is for this reason that the use of VPNs and encrypted messaging services has grown so much in recent years.
The news that everyone’s information has been collected for such a long period of time will add further fuel to the fire of those campaigning for such powers to be reined in. It remains to be seen if the Investigatory Powers Bill can be amended sufficiently to do this.