A year ago, U.S. National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden opened the world's eyes to the issue of mass surveillance. In the post-Snowden era, whistleblowers aren't the only way the world is learning about the nuances of government surveillance—court actions are also proving to be a source of illumination.
A legal challenge from civil liberties groups around the world against the United Kingdom's intelligence services, including the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), over mass surveillance has yielded some interesting insight into the perceived legality of the practice. On June 17, Privacy International published the witness statement of Charles Farr, director general of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism at the United Kingdom's Home Office.
Farr's statement reveals the British policy and justification for mass surveillance of Internet users in that country. Mass surveillance is generally not something that would be allowed under British law without a warrant, but Farr's statement indicates that the rules differ when the communications go outside the United Kingdom.
"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," Farr stated. "In such a case, the search would correspondingly involve two external communications."
The same logic holds true for Facebook and Twitter even more so, since those services both technically reside within the United States as platforms where the communications remain. As such, since Google, Facebook and Twitter use by British citizens is considered external to the United Kingdom, Farr sees it within the realm of the law for intelligence officers to monitor.
In a statement of its own, Privacy International criticized the British policy on Google, Facebook and Twitter surveillance.
"By defining the use of 'platforms' such as Facebook, Twitter and Google as 'external communications,' British residents are being deprived of the essential safeguards that would otherwise be applied to their communications—simply because they are using services that are based outside the U.K.," the group stated.
Looking at the issue from the other side of the equation, the United Kingdom's intelligence agencies work with other foreign intelligence agencies and the overall global efforts have had positive results for security, Farr noted in his statement.
"Overall, intelligence derived from communications and communications data obtained from foreign intelligence partners and from the U.S. intelligence agencies in particular has led directly to the prevention of terrorist attacks and serious crime and the saving of lives," Farr stated.
In the United States, the National Security Agency's mass surveillance effort known as Prism was first disclosed in June 2013 by Snowden. That disclosure led to months of public debate and finally the passage of the USA Freedom Act in May 2014 in a bid to improve the privacy of individual Americans.
Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.