British spies free to hack citizens with immunity

New legislation that has come in to force this May in the United Kingdom has paved the way for the intelligence agencies to have a free for all on hacking in to its own citizens systems and also against international targets.

Hacking is a serious word, it conjures up images of an Eastern European or Russian twenty-somethings huddled over a computer emptying bank accounts of wealthy Europeans or Americans, either that or defacing websites with adolescent messages.

However, hacking takes on a much more serious form when the government is the one partaking in the activity and more worryingly against us as citizens.

Men in overcoats allowed to hack

The UK’s Computer Misuse Act (1990) is usually brought in to play against pesky teenagers, most recently those who were part of the Lulzsec and Anonymous hacking groups that caused untold misery for large corporations. In situations such as these laws to protect computer systems are heavily relied on and expectedly so.

An unnoticed amendment to the act has been passed with almost zero consultation from outside organisations allowing British intelligence officers from the likes of GCHQ and other law enforcement to be able to carry out hacking against citizens and be immune.

This allows law enforcement to break into your desktop, laptop, tablet or mobile phone without fear of being prosecuted. As long as you are a suspected criminal, law enforcement officers would be able to access your personal computer, snoop around and you would have no recourse against the officer.

Under normal circumstances to enter physical property UK law enforcement are required to obtain warrants from a court of law before being legally able to enter a property. It is thought that warrants to enter computers in the digital world are not being sought in every case and the new amendment protects law enforcement officers in the process when carrying out investigations inside the UK or against UK citizens.

NGOs react to underhand law passing tactics

Former US security consultant turned whistleblower Edward Snowden warned in October 2014 that UK authority’s surveillance system was a basic “anything goes” affair and ultimately gave UK intelligence agencies more power than that seen in the United States. The UK already has legislation, the Intelligence Services Act which permits similar activity against overseas targets.

Human Rights “watchdog” Privacy International have been attempting to hold the UK authorities to account on a number of issues including mass surveillance and the way it is carried out behind closed doors with little public oversight.

A complaint against the new act amendment has been put to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal that handles issues against the intelligence services.

We had previously thought [hacking] in this country to be unlawful. The effect of this amendment has passed everyone by. Attention was not called to it during the parliamentary process, which may not have been accidental. It was hidden in plain sight.

Ben Jaffey, Lawyer for Privacy International

Privacy International are concerned that the new hacking amendment is more damaging than mere interception of messages which caused an outcry in 2013 after the revelations of Edward Snowden. Their fear is well founded because it involves the intelligence services cracking open a pathway into a user’s system which could cause untold damage and potentially be left open for others to exploit. With a user unaware this has taken place it would be impossible for them to safeguard against.

When UK bills are passed they are discussed by the government in parliament and overseen by a separate house known as the House of Lords who have the power to delay a bill becoming law after scrutiny. According to reports, no mention of the true nature of the amendment was made clear to those who oversaw the law meaning those who passed the law would be unaware of the impact.

Privacy International are no stranger to holding the UK spy agencies to account as in May 2014 they filed an unrelated complaint with the Investigatory Powers Tribunal challenging the hacking abilities of the GCHQ, a case which will start being heard in the fall.

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