The Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) has ruled that the remote activation of microphones and cameras on electronic devices such as smartphones by the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) corporate spying agency, without the owner’s knowledge, is today legal.
The Independent wrote that the case represented the first time that GCHQ — the British intelligence and security agency responsible for monitoring signals intelligence — admitted it does carry out equipment interference, also known as ‘hacking,’ in the UK and overseas.
The case was brought by the human rights ‘watchdog,’ Privacy International. With its campaigns focused on privacy intrusions by government and businesses, it had hoped to establish that GCHQ’s hacking operations, known as computer network exploitation (CNE), are too intrusive and break European law, perhaps in hindsight they should have built a case on common law instead of the corporate legal system which of course both GCHQ and the UK government today belong.
The IPT ruling said :
The use of CNE by GCHQ, now avowed, has obviously raised a number of serious questions, which we have done our best to resolve.
Plainly, it again emphasises the requirement for a balance to be drawn between the urgent need of the intelligence agencies to safeguard the public and the protection of an individual’s privacy and, or, freedom of expression.
We are satisfied that with the new [equipment interference code] and whatever the outcome of parliamentary consideration of the investigatory powers bill, a proper balance is being struck in regard to the matters we have been asked to consider.
The Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said that CNE operations play “a crucial part in our ability to protect the British public” adding that a “proper balance is being struck between the need to keep Britain safe and the protection of individuals’ privacy.
The Investigatory Powers Bill comes into law later this year prompting the Home Office to publish a code of practice for ‘hacking,’ with, they say, hopes to put it on a firmer legal footing.
Privacy International said they are disappointed by the ruling, with Scarlet Kim, a legal representative for the group, said :
“Hacking is one of the most intrusive surveillance capabilities available to intelligence agencies.
“The IPT has decided that GCHQ can use ‘thematic warrants’, which means GCHQ can hack an entire class of property or persons, such as ‘all phones in Birmingham’.
“In doing so, it has upended a longstanding English common law principle that such general warrants are unlawful. Allowing governments to hack places the security and stability of the internet and the information we exchange on it at stake.”
I would like to understand the definition of hacking, is it just to switch on cameras and microphones, or is the introduction of carrier waves into the smart phone also now ‘legal’?