Posts Tagged ‘surveillance’


Observer publishes article about use of spyware

Today’s (17 March 2019) UK Observer newspaper published a story about the use of spyware around the world and in particular by countries known for their poor human rights record.  These include Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Readers of this blog will know that this has been going on for some time and a report by the University of Toronto’s Citizen’s Lab has been compiling evidence of this activity and publishes reports of the use of spyware around the world.  Other organisations like Privacy International are also concerned.

What the Observer article reveals is the scale of the UK’s exports which have amounted to £75m since 2015.  Human Rights groups are concerned at this trade since it enables authoritarian governments to penetrate the devices of anyone it doesn’t like and gather information at will from their equipment.   The equipment is capable of intercepting email, instant messaging and VoIP communications, as well as spying on users through webcams and microphones and transmitting the data to a command-and-control server.

In addition to the scale of trade, is the issue of secrecy and attempts to get details of what and who is being supplied from Department of International Trade using FOI are largely fruitless.  The concern is that what matters is trade and not the purposes to which the equipment is put.

Part of the units occupied by Gamma in Porton

Porton Business Centre

This is of interest in the Salisbury area because one of the firms which manufactures this equipment called Finspy is a firm called GammaTSE based in the village of Porton not far from the city (and not far from Porton Down, the chemical weapons centre – the same Porton).  A report by the University of Toronto in 2013 found Finspy installed in 36 countries.  The firm’s website coyly describes its service thus;

GammaTSE has been supplying government agencies worldwide with turnkey surveillance projects since the 1990s.  GammaTSE manufactures highly specialized surveillance vehicles and integrated surveillance systems, helping government agencies collect data and communicate it to key decision-makers for timely decisions to be made.

An earlier post described the firm’s activities in more detail.  The UK is therefore heavily involved in a trade which allows governments to intercept messages of human rights activists, opposition members, journalists and more or less anyone it does not like.

 

 

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European Court rules against UK government in a landmark case

In September 2018, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK government’s surveillance activities acted against the human rights of its citizens.  It said the ‘UK mass surveillance programme violated human rights and had no real safeguards in place’.  British intelligence agencies – principally GCHQ – violated the right to a private and family life because there was insufficient oversight over which communications were chosen for examination.

As the Independent newspaper puts it:

Under the guise of counter terrorism the UK had adopted the most authoritarian surveillance regime in Europe corroding democracy itself and the rights of the British public.  13 September

A number of human rights organisations, including Amnesty and Liberty, have been pursuing this case and the result is to be welcomed.  Amnesty were particularly concerned because they themselves were penetrated by GCHQ.  In view of the sensitivity of Amnesty’s work and the contacts with vulnerable people around the world, to find that a government agency was calmly monitoring its work is alarming.  The wholesale nature of the Tempora programme was a shock to many.

What is also alarming is the lack of oversight of the agencies.  Despite, as the New Statesman puts it, an ‘alphabet soup’ of organisations which are meant to be overseeing and monitoring what they are up to, it was the work of journalists and human rights organisations which finally brought the government to account.

For many people this is a matter of little interest.  People often say they are unconcerned if their emails are being monitored and their movements tracked.  ‘If I have done nothing wrong, so what?’ is a common response.  Likewise, the discovery that people were being manipulated using Facebook over the Brexit vote has evoked little real interest.

For those who have lived in an authoritarian state on the other hand, and have experienced first hand what it’s like to be subject to constant and intrusive surveillance, the reaction is likely to be different.

When Britain leaves the EU, the current government was determined to remove us from the aegis of the court and to abolish the Human Rights Act.  This was a manifesto promise.  That position has shifted during the Brexit negotiations and we will continue to be subject to its jurisdiction.  This has infuriated that section of the Conservative party who do not wish to be controlled by ‘foreign courts’ as they put it.

This ruling emphasises how important it is that we stay within the ECHR.  Clearly, parliament, MPs and various oversight agencies failed in their basic duty of oversight.  There is a legitimate desire to detect terrorists and those who wish to do harm to the country or individuals within it.  This is written in Salisbury where the attempted murder of two Russians by agents of the GRU is a case in point.  We rely on the various state agencies to keep watch over individuals with malign intent.  But is has to be targeted and subject to oversight.  We give up a bit of our liberty and freedom because we want to be safe.  It does not mean giving a free hand to collect any information that GCHQ feels it needs in a kind of fishing expedition.  We also rely on parliament to keep and eye on the executive and its agencies to see that they are properly monitored and behaving responsibly.  They fail in that.

This ruling is welcomed and we now need to hear from government what measures they are going to adopt to put matters right.  We also rely on the opposition to ask questions of the government and to keep their feet to the fire.

Sources: the Independent; the New Statesman; the Guardian; Amnesty International