Privacy International won a lawsuit forcing the UK government to publish thousands of pages of records on the use of "Bulk Personal Datasets" by the spy agencies GCHQ, MI5 and MI6.
The document dump reveals that the spies hold data on millions of Britons who are suspected of no wrongdoing, including records on dead people who cannot possibly pose a threat to national security. These records, which include "private medical records, your correspondence with your doctor or lawyer, even what petitions you have signed, your financial data, and commercial activities," are safeguarded through self-regulating systems that are laughable in their tragic lack of seriousness.
For spies to search these records, they need only select an item from a "Purpose" menu (with choices like "National Security," "Economic Wellbeing" and "Serious Crime") and type a sentence or two into a field labeled "Justification." The spy agencies report that this system is literally never subject to serious abuse, reporting that from 2014 to 2016, "no officers had been prosecuted, none had been dismissed, and only five had been 'subject to disciplinary procedures.'" Those are some trustworthy spies! I guess it's all right that they're watching themselves, then.
The dump comes just as the debate over the controversial domestic spying law, the Snoopers Charter, is reaching a climax. The Snoopers Charter will bring a lot of this activity under firmer legal footing — but without any more safeguards or proportionality.
That seems to be where we're headed in the UK with the new Investigatory Powers Bill (IPB), which would normalise this indiscriminate spying. The new documents reveal that the UK intelligence services have been engaged in mass surveillance since at least 2001. Now they want more. "The agencies have been doing this for 15 years in secret and are now quietly trying to put these powers on the statute books for the first time," Woods said, "in the Investigatory Powers Bill, which is currently being debated in Parliament."
Privacy International filed the lawsuit in June of last year, challenging the legality of Bulk Personal Datasets, which were first mentioned in a March 2015 report. The court then heard the case in secret, barring Privacy International from sending legal counsel and, after secret deliberation, ordered these documents to be released.
Our requests for comment to the collective UK intelligence services went to /dev/null. The Home Office press office, which handles media requests for MI5, did not answer our phone calls. The FCO press office, which handles media enquiries for the SIS, did not answer our e-mailed request for comment. GCHQ did not answer our e-mail requesting comment.
UK intel agencies spy indiscriminately on millions of innocent folks
[JM Porup/Ars Technica]
(Image: Petr Kratochvil)