British intelligence allegedly using social media for mass surveillance

18 Oct 2017

Social media platforms. Image: Twin Design/Shutterstock

Documents obtained by Privacy International show that UK agencies could be collecting the social media information of millions.

Privacy International said it has obtained documentation showing that UK intelligence agency GCHQ is apparently sharing large databases of personal information gleaned from social media with industry, law enforcement and other government administrations, according to a report published in TechCrunch yesterday (17 October).

Privacy International is also said to have letters that show the governing body over UK intelligence agencies had not been told that the databases were being shared, raising concerns around the effectiveness of the governance of these agencies.

Governing body ‘kept in the dark’

The use of bulk personal datasets (BPDs) was only made public in 2015 in a report written by the Intelligence and Security Committee, but it was heavily redacted. This is the first instance that social media data has been explicitly mentioned as an information source.

The Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office (IPCO) “sought immediate inspection when secret practices came to light”, according to Privacy International.

The evidence was obtained by Privacy International as part of one of its ongoing legal battles against the use of BPDs for investigatory purposes.

In a statement, the group said: “Letters obtained by Privacy International reveal that the body tasked with overseeing intelligence agencies’ activities, IPCO, was kept in the dark as UK intelligence agencies shared massive databases with foreign governments, law enforcement and industry, potentially for decades.”

IPCO also raised concerns about the possible misuse of this information by third-party contractors.

Details of shared data unclear

According to Privacy International, it is still unclear as to exactly which aspects of social media information the government agencies are holding, beyond broad categories that have been previously identified such as “biographical details”, “commercial and financial activities” and “legally privileged communications”, among others.

Millie Graham Wood, a solicitor at Privacy International, said: “The intelligence agencies’ practices in relation to bulk data were previously found to be unlawful. After three years of litigation, just before the court hearing, we learn not only are safeguards for sharing our sensitive data non-existent, but the government has databases with our social media information and is potentially sharing access to this information with foreign governments.

“The risks associated with these activities are painfully obvious. We are pleased the IPCO is keen to look at these activities as a matter of urgency, and the report is publicly available in the near future.”

Social media platforms. Image: Twin Design/Shutterstock

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects