British government has finally admitted that communication of its citizens in private channels like Twitter direct messages are considered as legitimate targets that can be intercepted without a warrant.
The document representing defence of mass monitoring developed a legal interpretation,
provoking calls for the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to be overhauled urgently and the allegations that the authorities are exploiting loopholes in the law of which parliament was unaware.
The paper was released in response to a case brought by civil rights groups before the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), which deals with complaints against the intelligence services. The case was launched in the wake of revelations from Edward Snowden about the monitoring program dubbed Tempora operated by the British monitoring agency GCHQ. This program taps into the network of fiber-optic cables that carry the phone calls and online traffic worldwide, recording up to 600 million phone events daily.
According to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, traditional interception of internal communications within the country requires an individual warrant. The authorities argue that in a technologically-fast moving world, identifying individual targets before monitoring is too difficult. The external one, in the meantime, can be monitored without an individual warrant. The document explains that searches on social networks involve communicating with a web-based platform abroad, and are therefore external communications, not internal. Emails sent or received from abroad could also be intercepted in such a way.
The statement also points out that the issue was raised during the passage of the law a decade ago, implying that parliament knew about the difficulty of distinguishing between internal and external communications when it passed the bill.
Indeed, the Section 8 of the law reads that the internal communications between UK residents within the UK may only be monitored pursuant to a specific warrant, and if there’s a reason to suspect the individual in unlawful activity. But external communications may be monitored indiscriminately under a general warrant.