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After a year of silence over reports of its involvement in the indiscriminate surveillance of millions of people around the world, the UK government has confirmed what many had feared – snooping on a mass scale is not only happening, but existing laws do little to protect privacy rights. The case for reform is now overwhelming.

The 48-page statement by senior security official Charles Farr published this week was a response to legal challenges brought by Privacy International, Amnesty International, Liberty, and other rights groups on the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) surveillance activities.

In the statement, the government continues to “neither confirm nor deny” that GCHQ intercepts cables carrying communications data in and out of the UK through its “Tempora” program, as first revealed by Edward Snowden. But Farr made it clear that in their view the law allows the UK government access to millions of domestic communications via popular social sites like Twitter and Facebook, as well as emails.

The 2000 law governing surveillance, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), allows for surveillance on very broad grounds under an interception warrant issued by a senior government minister at the request of a senior intelligence or police official. RIPA distinguishes between communications between people located in the UK (“internal”), and those where the sender or recipient is abroad. For the latter, considered to be “external,” the warrant does not need to specify a particular person or premises that may be linked to wrongdoing or actual security threats.

The British government treats searches on Google and YouTube, posts on Facebook, and tweets as “external communications” since the companies’ web servers are largely based outside the British Islands. The statement acknowledges that this means communications between people in the UK on platforms such as Facebook may be intercepted as well. But the statement claims there is “a significant distinction between the act of interception itself, and a person actually reading, looking at or listening to intercepted material.”

I, for one, would not be comfortable with the government recording my phone conversations, whether or not it subsequently listens to them. The same applies to online activity. The government must respect our right to privacy from the moment of interception, and reform of the law is urgently needed to end this distinction. 

The law must also be changed to end the distinction between “internal” and “external” communications. Today, such a distinction is out of step with the way the Internet works and offers little practical protection to UK residents. As long as it has access to people’s data, the UK government has a duty to respect their right to privacy, wherever in the world they are.

The UK government’s position sheds much needed light on how the law is being interpreted and applied. MPs should now launch a public debate and push for meaningful privacy protections for the digital age. This is not only necessary for those of us in the UK, it is essential if the UK is to regain its credibility when it speaks about Internet freedom internationally.

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