Why the “Snoopers Charter” means nothing and state surveillance will escalate

9th June 2016 / United Kingdom

By Graham Vanbergen – Recently leaked letters between the officials charged with overseeing Britain’s spy agency and GCHQ itself have revealed that the eavesdropping service does pretty much what it wants irrespective of the law. It’s been barely three years since the Edward Snowden revelations were made known to the world when we suddenly realised that we were not being told something by our own government – we are all suspects and unprecedented state surveillance proves it.

The general public were not to know what their taxes were really paying for and had not known for decades.

From Privacy International “Previously confidential documents published today reveal the staggering extent of UK Government surveillance that has been kept secret from the public and Parliament for the last 15 years. Revealed in a case brought by Privacy International about the use of so-called ‘Bulk Personal Datasets’ and a law dating back to 1984, the extracts show that the UK Government’s intelligence services, GCHQ, MI5, and MI6, routinely requisition personal data from potentially thousands of public and private organisations.”

One should not forget that laws passed in 1984 and the aforementioned documents withheld pre-dates the excuses the public has been given for mass surveillance in the first place i.e. the ‘war on terror’.

And why would the public be made aware of who or what is spying on them when the Intelligence & Security Committee and even the Parliamentary Committee overseeing GCHQ were not aware of their activities. GCHQ do not see themselves as accountable to anyone including members of parliament, the elected representatives of the people and therefore not government.

“The term ‘Bulk Personal Datasets‘ was first used in March last year in an Intelligence & Security Committee (ISC) Report. Even the ISC, the Parliamentary Committee that oversees the work of the intelligence agencies and has full security clearance, was unaware of the use of BPDs until recently.”

Privacy International (PI) make the observation from leaked documents that there is now irrefutable proof GCHQ is monitoring much more than it had previously admitted. Far from just bulk storage of data such as emails, text messages and social media posts it has now been confirmed that almost everything we generate as information can be collected. The intelligence agencies have taken it upon themselves to secretly gain access to your entire life without permission from anyone – you or the government.

PI concludes from these documents that GCHQ can get information on your medical records, and that’s all of them. It can get travel and financial records,physical characteristics like body type, hair and eye colour, biometric data, your work related information, deals done, transactions and commercial activities, the bills you pay, how you pay them, subscriber details, records from government departments, private conversations with lawyers, MP’s and doctors. There is nothing that our own government agencies cannot find out about us.

GCHQ is unable to answer some basic questions like – how much information do the various surveillance agencies hold on British citizens.

So as government mulls over new laws to control these agencies under the so-called “Snoopers Charter”, the general public are left with the assumption that there’s no point in passing laws if government won’t properly police them.

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Just last year we found out that no-one is protected or shielded from British government surveillance. MP’s can now have their communications routinely read by people working at GCHQ so can lawyers and civil liberty groups. The hacker group Anonymous had their website shut down by GCHQ after a four-day privacy rights protest was organised outside their head-quarters. Experts have warned government that GCHQ present a threat to the Bank of England, banking privacy and security systems and even that ex-GCHQ staff are practically being forced into security teams at banking institutions, which threatens cybersecurity architecture.

GCHQ have been accused of meddling in the affairs of Northern Ireland, and the Scottish Parliament, along with MEP’s and friendly governments, trade unions and the like.

Amnesty NI director Patrick Corrigan said: “The change in GCHQ’s interpretation of the Wilson doctrine (spying on MP’s) illustrates why mass surveillance is so damaging to a free society. If our elected representatives are not safe from the spies, who is?

Millie Graham Wood, Legal Officer at Privacy International said: “The information revealed by this disclosure shows the staggering extent to which the intelligence agencies hoover up our data. This can be anything from your private medical records, your correspondence with your doctor or lawyer, even what petitions you have signed, your financial data, and commercial activities. This data is integrated into databases that could be used to build detailed profiles about all of us. The agencies themselves admit that the majority of data collected relates to individuals who are not a threat to national security or suspected of a crime. This highly sensitive information about us is vulnerable to attack from hackers, foreign governments, and criminals. The agencies have been doing this for 15 years in secret and are now quietly trying to put these powers on the statute book for the first time, in the Investigatory Powers Bill, which is currently being debated in Parliament. These documents reveal a lack of openness and transparency with the public about these staggering powers and a failure to subject them to effective Parliamentary scrutiny.”

The fact is that GCHQ collects and manages citizens personal information and data despite falling foul of the European Court of Human Rights. It also demonstrates that, despite the introduction of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) back in 2000, the intelligence and surveillance services were still using the 1984 Telecommunications Act as the legal excuse for it’s activities even though that law had no intention of allowing it because thirty years ago we didn’t have the internet.

What this shows is that government officials have lost control. What is also shows is that the surveillance agencies, acting on behalf of government are largely attacking our own system of democracy, inhibiting the public’s right to peaceful protest, interfering in the affairs of local and devolved government and making everyone else fearful of even speaking their own mind in private conversations.

As a concerned, conscientious or just inquisitive citizen you may quite rightly ask why is it happening and for whose benefit. But actually nowadays, you might not ask at all as research has revealed we are so scared of our own government we are actually self-censoring our activities on the internet, what we say and how we act in public.

As more and more people start to ask questions about government policy over privacy, secret trade deals like TTIP, the imposition of austerity whilst taxes remain unpaid and eventually protest about its lack of accountability to democracy, uncontrolled state surveillance will become more pervasive and omnipresent and then used to suppress civil liberties and rights.

The Guardian makes a point in its article Snooper’s charter: Most Britons unaware of Tory plans, survey finds. “Britons could be sleepwalking into a new era of state surveillance powers, judging by a new poll conducted by the civil rights organisation Liberty. Before a Commons battle over the investigatory powers bill this week, the poll found that 92% of respondents who were aware of the proposals – described as a “snooper’s charter” by critics – disapproved of them. But 72% of respondents said that they knew nothing about it.”

This “charter” will mean nothing to GCHQ that has been actively and knowingly breaking laws for decades. It will do as it pleases as it has done irrespective of legislation designed to control state surveillance excesses and abuses.

This is the stuff of authoritarian regimes.

Graham Vanbergen – truepublica.org.uk


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