Mass surveillance of social media legal, says UK official

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The mass collection of posts from social media sites such as Twitter, Google and Facebook is considered legal in the United Kingdom. This is because this type of communication is classified as external, according to Britain’s top security official.

Office for Security and Counterterrorism director general Charles Farr defended the UK government’s practice of gathering social media information without a search warrant in a 48-page declaration. Advocacy group Privacy International made this document public in relation to a case that challenged dragnet government surveillance within the UK.

In his statement, Farr revealed the secret government policy behind one of the government’s warrantless bulk surveillance programmes, which is known as TEMPORA.

Privacy International noted that this is the first time that the government commented on the legal justifications for their mass interception of communications.

Citing section 8(1) of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), Farr explained that while internal communications among UK residents are subject to an individual search warrant, external communications like social media postings are not and can therefore be monitored indiscriminately.

Farr added that once a message is posted on a platform that offers wide accessibility such as Twitter or Facebook, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) does not consider the communication to have been made between “any particular person” but rather with “the platform itself”, making it an external communication that is not subject to the traditional warrant requirement.

Michael Bochenek, senior director of International Law and Policy at Amnesty International, said: “British citizens will be alarmed to see their government justifying industrial-scale intrusion into their communications. The public should demand an end to this wholesale violation of their right to privacy.”