Jun 17, 2014 · 2 minutes

According to a statement from the director general of the Office of Counter Terrorism (OCST), the United Kingdom feels free to intercept communications transmitted via Facebook, Google, and other services because they aren't based in the country. The statement made in response to a lawsuit from Privacy International, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other privacy advocacy groups.

Privacy International summarizes the director general's 48-page statement with the following:

The distinction between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ communications is crucial. Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (‘RIPA’), which regulates the surveillance powers of public bodies, ‘internal’ communications may only be intercepted under a warrant which relates to a specific individual or address. These warrants should only be granted where there is some suspicion of unlawful activity. However, an individual’s ‘external communications’ may be intercepted indiscriminately, even where there are no grounds to suspect any wrongdoing.

By defining the use of ‘platforms’ such as Facebook, Twitter and Google as ‘external communications’, British residents are being deprived of the essential safeguards that would otherwise be applied to their communications - simply because they are using services that are based outside the UK. That might explain why UK intelligence agencies were able to gather images from intercepted video communications in an attempt to create a more powerful facial recognition system: they were simply collecting the "external communications" of the many people who used Yahoo and its video chat tools to stay in touch and, because this is the Internet, show off their dangly bits.

The director general's statement is full of specious arguments that are often trotted out when a government official is confronted with the sheer size of their surveillance apparatus. He says that information gathered by intelligence agencies in both the UK and the United States has prevented terrorist attacks, but such claims are often contested by independent organizations. He also tries to defend rampant digital spying by comparing it to more traditional sleuthing:

I do not consider that intelligence in the form of (or that is derived from) communications and communications data is in some general sense more personal or private than those other forms of intelligence. For instance, if an eavesdropping device is covertly installed in a target's home it may record conversations between family members that are more intimate and personal than those that might be recorded if the target's telephone were to be intercepted (and this example becomes even clearer if, for instance, the telephone in question is only used by the target to contact his criminal associates).
The 48-page statement is worth reading in full if only because it's a prototypical example of the arguments government officials make about their intelligence programs, even as they systematically erode the privacy and personal liberty of citizens and anyone communicating with them. It also exposes for the first time, as the New York Times notes, the British government's rationale behind some of those programs. But the rest is just smoke and mirrors meant to deflect from the real issue.

[Image courtesy Leo Reynolds]