British spies are allowed to intercept Google and Facebook traffic, official says

It is the first time a U.K. official has commented on the government's "vague surveillance legal framework", Privacy International said

By , IDG News Service |  Government

British spies are authorized to spy on British citizens' Internet communications transiting through servers outside the U.K., a civil rights group has discovered.

Privacy International uncovered the information as part of a lawsuit it filed against the U.K. government over its alleged involvement in mass surveillance programs. It filed the suit with the U.K.'s Investigatory Powers Tribunal, a court that can investigate complaints about any alleged conduct by or on behalf of the intelligence services.

On Tuesday the group published a witness statement from Charles Farr, director general of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism at the U.K.'s Home Office, who is among the government officials and other witnesses who have made depositions in the case. His statement was published ahead of a hearing by the tribunal scheduled to take place between July 14 and 18.

Farr, one of the U.K.'s most senior security officials, said British spies have the right to intercept Internet communications even if they are from British citizens because the services often use Web servers located outside the U.K. Many messages "such as a Google search, a search of YouTube for a video, a 'tweet' on Twitter, or the posting of a message on Facebook," could be qualified as external by the intelligence services, he said.

Under British laws, the country's intelligence services require a special warrant to monitor communications of British residents located within the U.K., which can only be granted if there is reason to suspect the person is involved in unlawful activity. However, only a general warrant is required for external communications, sent or received outside of the U.K., the Isle of Man, or the Channel Islands, collectively known as the British Islands.

"A Google search by an individual located in the U.K. may well involve a communication from the searcher's computer to a Google web server, which is received outside the British Islands; and a communication from Google to the searcher's computer, which is sent outside the British Islands. In such a case, the search would correspondingly involve two 'external communications'," Farr said.

In the case of Twitter and Facebook the recipient of the communication is the platform itself since the message is not meant for a particular person but broadcast to a group, Farr said. "Thus a user located in the British Islands posting a message on Facebook will communicate with a Facebook web server, located in a Facebook data center. If the Facebook data center is outside the British Islands, then the message will be an 'external communication'," he said.

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