It has been revealed that UK intelligence agencies (MI5, MI6, and GCHQ) have been secretly engaging in mass surveillance since the late 1990s, and are ‘protecting’ this information with feeble safegaurds that are often abused.
A cache of more than 100 memorandums, forms and policy papers, which were recently published as a result of a lawsuit filed by Privacy International, revealed that “Bulk Personal Datasets” (BPDs) have been collected for longer than previously exposed, and contain “hundreds to millions of records” on people who are “unlikely to be of intelligence or security interest.”
These records can contain “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,” Privacy International legal officer Millie Graham Wood said in a statement. “The information revealed by this disclosure shows the staggering extent to which the intelligence agencies hoover up our data.”
— Netizen Rights (@netizenrights) April 22, 2016
In order to gauge how extensive the BPDs are, the files even include information that has been collected on deceased people – how these ‘dead and buried’ individuals threaten national security was not disclosed.
“Whilst DPA [the Data Protection Act] refers only to ‘a living individual’, many bulk personal datasets will contain details about individuals who are dead. SIA [GCHQ, MI5, and MI6/SIS] policy and processes in relation to bulk personal data is the same for both the living and the dead,” states one of the documents.
Despite the obvious size and importance of the information obtained for the BPDs, concerns surrounding the ineffectiveness of the safeguards put in place to protect the personal data have arisen numerous times.
In a newsletter that was circulated in September 2011 by MI6, staff were cautioned against misuse of the database.
“We’ve seen a few instances recently of individuals crossing the line with their database use … looking up addresses in order to send birthday cards, checking passport details to organise personal travel, checking details of family members for personal convenience,” it says.
“Another area of concern is the use of the database as a ‘convenient way’ to check the personal details of colleagues when filling out service forms on their behalf. Please remember that every search has the potential to invade the privacy of individuals, including individuals who are not the main subject of your search, so please make sure you always have a business need to conduct that search and that the search is proportionate to the level of intrusion involved.”
But what measures are taken against staff members who misuse this data? UK intelligence services have stated that – depending on the individual case – employees will face disciplinary action, dismissal or prosecution if found to be abusing this data.
When asked how many times they have disciplined officers for abusing the data by Privacy International, the secret services stated that between 2014 and 2016, no officers had been prosecuted, none had been dismissed, and only five had been “subject to disciplinary procedures”—three in the SIS, two at MI5, and none at the GCHQ. However, according to reports, a number of non-compliance issues resulted in no action at all.
MI5, MI6 & GCHQ hacked themselves & family members to get personal info to send birthday cards, new papers reveal https://t.co/H2cfByHA1P
— glynwintle (@glynwintle) April 22, 2016
To make matters worse, Privacy International then went on the question the overall security of the BPDs. “This highly sensitive information about us is vulnerable to attack from hackers, foreign governments, and criminals,” said Wood.
However, as we all know, even our own governments cannot truly be trusted with such sensitive information. “I actually think it would be very hard for an adversary to steal such data in bulk,” he told Ars. “I think a far greater concern is phrased as ‘What Would J. Edgar Hoover [the late, corrupt FBI director] do?’: What if a demagogue—Hoover, Nixon, Trump, LePen—gains power in Britain. Such mass databases are incredibly powerful for tyrants and represent a level of potential collection and control that would make the Stasi blush,” said security researcher Nicholas Weaver of UC Berkeley.
According to the files, GCHQ, the government’s electronic eavesdropping centre based in Cheltenham, has been collecting and developing bulk data sets as early as 1998 under powers granted by section 94 of the 1984 Telecommunications Act.
The collection of bulk data has been justified by the agencies’ need to detect and find suspects quickly. “By integrating bulk data [redaction] with information about individual subjects of interest from other sources of intelligence (liaison relationships, agent reporting, intercept, eavesdropping, surveillance) and from ‘fusing’ different data-sets in order to identify common links, we can better understand target networks, locations and behaviours, enabling a greater depth and breadth of target coverage,” states an MI5 document.
“The fragmentary nature of many intelligence leads and the magnitude of the threat all mean that there is currently no effective method of resolving identities in a timely fashion without using bulk data.”
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