The court tasked with investigating privacy infringements ruled on February 12th that it is legal for UK government agencies to hack electronic devices such as computers and phones, both within the UK and abroad.
During the hearing at the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), a UK intelligence agency, has approved for the first time that they had been hacking devices both in the UK and abroad, since at least 2013.
The GCHQ also disclosed that they use spyware that can stay active for extended periods of time and that a substantial (up to 20%) of their intelligence reports rely on information gathered through hacking.
The human rights organization Privacy International together with seven internet providers initiated the proceedings in the hope that the court would rule that hacking carried out by government intelligence agencies under “thematic warrants” infringes on privacy rights. “Thematic warrants” allow intelligence agencies to target large groups of people and devices without having to prove suspicious activity on all of them.
Privacy International argued that these orders are so general they could even allow the government to hack all devices belonging to the entire population of a specific city. The court, however, ruled that the use of “thematic warrants” is legal and compatible with human rights.
The judgement comes at a critical moment as debate rages about the government’s new surveillance law, known as the Investigatory Powers Bill. The law, which is still being drafted, could give government agencies new powers to access private user data, including web browser histories.
Many tech giants, including Google, Yahoo, Apple and Twitter, fear that the bill will have a negative impact on their business and have jointly submitted evidence to the Parliament against it. Meanwhile, the government hopes that the new ruling will show people that government agencies use hacking in a lawful and appropriate way.
In response to the judgement, the foreign secretary, Phillip Hammond stressed that “the ability to exploit computer networks plays a crucial part in our ability to protect the British public”.
Privacy International and other privacy rights campaigners will continue to search for grounds to challenge the ruling. Scarlet Kim, the group’s legal officer, stated that she hopes the judgement will be undermined by criticism of the surveillance bill.