back to article Brit spies can legally hack PCs and phones, say Brit spies' overseers

Blighty's spying nerve center GCHQ has a licence to hack computers and devices at will, a UK intelligence oversight court has ruled. The judgment was handed down on Friday after Privacy International and seven ISPs launched a legal challenge against the agency's hacking operations – operations that were laid bare by documents …

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  1. Gray
    Windows

    Looking on the positive side ...

    At least the hacking and spying is confined to the planet of residence ...

    ... errr, right?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Alien

      Re: Looking on the positive side ...

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      1. Asterix the Gaul

        Re: Looking on the positive side ...

        Looking on the positive side ... Someone gave a thumbs down...

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        1. Smooth Newt Silver badge

          Re: Looking on the positive side ...

          Looking on the positive side ... Someone gave a thumbs down...

          Possibly because "haaaaaaahahahhahahahahahahaahaaahhahahaa" for several lines adds nothing to the discussion. No meaningful comment, joke or really anything at all. It wouldn't even be good graffiti.

  2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    It would be interesting to see what would happen if someone found GCHQ in their system and took out a private prosecution. The first para of the ruling includes this statement: "The now well established procedure for this Tribunal is to make assumptions as to the significant facts in favour of claimants and reach conclusions on that basis, and only once it is concluded whether or not, if the assumed facts were established, the respondent’s conduct would be unlawful". There's a legal saying that facts alter cases. A specific set of facts in a specific case would seem to override the assumed facts (an oxymoron if there ever was one) of this hearing.

    And I wonder if this quote from the act "No entry on or interference with property or with wireless telegraphy shall be unlawful if it is authorised by a warrant issued by the Secretary of State under this section." could be the basis for an argument that it attempts to put the Secretary of State above the law.

    1. Adam 52 Silver badge

      The facts in your suggested case aren't likely to be materially different to those in the assumed one.

      As for the secretary of state being above the law, plenty of other cases where that's allowed - Police speeding, carrying firearms - and OK because it's authorised by parliament (or, more technically, by Liz).

      In reality a private prosecution would fail miserably, the courts would never rule against the government not even in a civil case. Plenty of cases, usually grabbed by Tugendhat, and he wasn't always overturned on appeal.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Not authorized by Parliament

        "and OK because it's authorised by parliament"

        Parliament awarded them all these powers for FOREIGN surveillance, it was a civil servants legal theory as to how it could be applied to domestic matters that extended it, this theory was revealed in May 2014 by Charles Farrs testimony to the IPT:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Farr

        With this ruling they'll throw out caution and spy/hack domestically.

        We cannot secure our own country from its own spying agency. Not the Parliament not the civil service, not the "Secretaries of State" even. Imagine if a Charles Farr figure gets the GCHQ head role. J Edgar Hoover situation, all over again.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._Edgar_Hoover

        "Late in life and after his death, Hoover became a controversial figure as evidence of his secretive abuses of power began to surface. He was found to have exceeded the jurisdiction of the FBI[1] and to have used the FBI to harass political dissenters and activists, to amass secret files on political leaders,[2] and to collect evidence using illegal methods.[3] Hoover consequently amassed a great deal of power and was in a position to intimidate and threaten sitting presidents.[4] According to biographer Kenneth Ackerman, the notion that Hoover's secret files kept presidents from firing him is a myth.[5] However, Richard Nixon was recorded as stating in 1971 that one of the reasons he did not fire Hoover was that he was afraid of reprisals against him from Hoover.[6]"

        "According to President Harry S. Truman, Hoover transformed the FBI into his private secret police force. Truman stated that "we want no Gestapo or secret police. The FBI is tending in that direction. They are dabbling in sex-life scandals and plain blackmail. J. Edgar Hoover would give his right eye to take over, and all congressmen and senators are afraid of him".[7]

        1. Dan 55 Silver badge

          Re: Not authorized by Parliament

          About "and OK because it's authorised by parliament", it's odd how they drag out a law concerning horse-drawn carriages from 1870 and apply it to mobile phones and say it's all above board.

          Well, I exaggerate, but it was a Telecoms act from 1984 applied to all forms of communication from then onward.

          I bet it took them a while to find something that sort of could be twisted to support what they were already doing anyway.

      2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        "The facts in your suggested case aren't likely to be materially different to those in the assumed one....In reality a private prosecution would fail miserably, the courts would never rule against the government not even in a civil case."

        OK, let's think what the facts might be. Say TPTB suspect a particular employee or customer & hack into the business. First of all the business will say "we're a legitimate business. We'd have been happy to cooperate if they'd approached us directly (employee) or with a warrant to cover out backs (customer)." Then they point out that the hack was damaging. A specified back door was left which competitors, criminals, foreign states etc. might have used. They also point out that they're concerned that even if the back door wasn't used by someone else they can't be sure of what data might have been changed by the "authorised" intruders so they've had to pay for an independent audit of their entire data assets in addition to a thorough review and repair of the system software. All costed out to a huge amount. Those would be specific facts which are couldn't be covered by a set of assumed facts in a general hearing.

        Cue accusation of misfeasance in public office by the SofS on the basis that it wasn't necessary accompanied by huge bill for all the costs. Then there's reputational loss. Wouldn't a jury find against them on the basis of clear evidence?

        The likely situation would be a big out-of-court settlement on the basis of keep quiet and take the money. Which makes one wonder how often that's already happened.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      well, if the "somebody" is a large organization with tons of times and money to pay the lawyers, they might consider taking out private prosecution, right. But then, any large organization with tons of money would prefer to stay pals with the government, for obvious reasons, and private prosecution, you know, just informal advice, nothing official, you know, will not go down well in the broad context of your organization's activity in the UK...

      as to an individual... sigh.

  3. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Unhappy

    Under what circumstances *would* they deem it unlawful?

    Because they sound like a rubber stamp body to me.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Big Brother

      Re: Under what circumstances *would* they deem it unlawful?

      If it was targeting one of them, or one of their government chums. Der!

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So electronic records are tainted evidence

    So to be clear it is spelled out, domestic:

    "5.i. GCHQ carries out CNE WITHIN and outside the UK. "

    And its authorized by politician using blanket warrants:

    "1) No entry on or interference with property or with wireless telegraphy shall be unlawful if it is authorised by a warrant issued by the Secretary of State under this section"

    And the confirmation of hacking:

    "GCHQ undertakes both “ persistent ” and “ non - persistent ” CNE operations, namely both where an ‘implant’ expires at the end of a user’s internet session and where it“resides” on a computer for an extended period. "

    ---------------

    When the evidence of a crime is information on a computer, and its lawful for GCHQ to hack and tamper with computers EVEN IN THE UK. Then the evidence trail is tainted EVEN IN THE UK.

    How much would you bet that GCHQ has been going after opponents of Snoopers Charter?

    I'm sure 100% they've been going after opponents of Snoopers Charter. Because there's no mechanism to prevent that now, and no bigger target than the people stopping them legalizing their illegal bulk UK surveillance.

    1. Christoph

      Re: So electronic records are tainted evidence

      Yes, it's going to be interesting when a defendant in a case where the prosecution is relying on computer evidence points out that no computer evidence can be relied on.

      1. Adam 52 Silver badge

        Re: So electronic records are tainted evidence

        If you remember long ago computer evidence wasn't admissible because it was deemed hearsay.

      2. Otto is a bear.

        Re: So electronic records are tainted evidence

        It is, and always has been the case that virtually any digital file can be tampered with, however there are a number of balances in that.

        1. Why would someone tamper with it?

        2. How easy was it to undetectably tamper with in the first place?

        3. How much would it cost to undetectably tamper with?

        I would suggest that you would need to spend far more money tampering with digital evidence than it would actually be worth. Just think of all those little things you would need to change, undetectably.

        Using media tools to massage media files is fairly easy to detect, and would render the use of those files meaningless, although there are legitimate reasons why you might, to enhance say, an Audio file. These can be used as evidence, provided that you retain the original and can show that your enhancement is independently repeatable, and legitimate through the chain of custody.

        I'd expect it to happen with intelligence services, for very, very high value targets, but it's beyond the financial ability of normal Law Enforcement. I do wonder what you would have to do to undetectably alter a video or audio file, if it's even possible with some formats.

        1. Andrew Meredith

          Re: So electronic records are tainted evidence

          "I would suggest that you would need to spend far more money tampering with digital evidence than it would actually be worth. Just think of all those little things you would need to change, undetectably."

          Just for kicks and giggles I inserted a brand new email into my inbox, pre-marked as read. I then took a look around at what might have given me away to myself.

          It's not that hard and I am now (on e-paper at least) one of the main conspirators in the Paris attacks.

    2. KeithR

      Re: So electronic records are tainted evidence

      "When the evidence of a crime is information on a computer, and its lawful for GCHQ to hack and tamper with computers EVEN IN THE UK. Then the evidence trail is tainted EVEN IN THE UK."

      You're going to have to explain how his makes for "tainted" evidence.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: So electronic records are tainted evidence

        You're going to have to explain how his makes for "tainted" evidence.

        Wow. You really need that explaining?

      2. NumptyScrub

        Re: So electronic records are tainted evidence

        You're going to have to explain how his makes for "tainted" evidence.

        You mean, as in a situation where the evidence that CPSA are relying on in court to convict you, is evidence that GCHQ have all the access and legal ability to have created or edited on your PC. Because it is entirely legal for them to access your computer and tamper with the data held therein.

        This leads to the conclusion that any computer data used as evidence in the UK is subject to the potential for it having been (completely legally) tampered with by GCHQ or any of it's authorised agents at any point during that data's lifetime.

  5. Voland's right hand Silver badge

    It is not the fact that it does which is the issue, it is the code of conduct

    It has to do that to do its job. So nothing wrong with that in principle. It the practice which is broken.

    However, what it can do and what it cannot do is formulated (probably deliberately) in a manner which can be best described as a legal fubar. Some of it is common across the board in most developed countries and it is the root of all Snowdens of yesteryear.

    1. The code of conduct is internal, not audited and not set in law.

    2. The exceptions to the computer misuse, fraud, RIPA, etc are not set in law and are granted by bureaucrat with excessive thinking about the children

    3. The application of the code of conduct is not audited externally

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: It is not the fact that it does which is the issue, it is the code of conduct

      And there's really no way to do #3 in a legally binding way due to the state holding ultimate, sovereign authority. IOW no country can be beholden to any other authority and remain sovereign.

    2. Lyndon Hills 1
      Thumb Up

      Re: It is not the fact that it does which is the issue, it is the code of conduct

      root of all Snowdens of yesteryear.

      Beautifully phrased.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Is this why

    My smart phone keeps locking up/crashing/etc?

    Started after a particular update, if I manually delete it the problem goes away for a while but its soon back when I next use open WiFi.

    Interestingly the SIM card seems to now be locked to the phone as I can't get 3/4G at all on my new one, yet all the settings are fine and an Airtel card works perfectly.

    1. Gordon 10 Silver badge
      Big Brother

      Re: Is this why

      No that's just android/iOS being buggy as shit.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Big Brother

        Re: Is this why

        Dumeyder / tomato

        Bug / feature

        You forgot to put "Honest!" at the end of your post G10 ;)

  7. Tony S
    Black Helicopters

    Think about this

    Go and read the short story "Minority Report" by Philip K Dick or watch the film of the same name. Now think about the issues raised in the story. Compare it to what is going on now and what these people seem to want to be able to do.

    Feeling scared? You should be.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Think about this

      Feeling scared? You should be.

      Actually no. I'm not too worried, because I am totally protected against the state's plans for universal spying and surveillance. And that defence is the same firewall of bureaucratic ineptitude evident in every other field of British government activity, and can be summarised as that they are totally fucking incompetent. Look at health, welfare, energy, trade, tax, foreign aid, defence, policing etc etc, I can't think of anything in those areas that I'd take my hat off and say "government have done a great job there". At the sharp end of delivery, there's people working hard to do the right thing, but at the top, almost the opposite.

      So putting GCHQ's bungling on a legal footing is almost irrelevant, because they couldn't catch a cold. Their earnest belief that they'll find more needles in a haystack by gathering more hay speaks for itself. And looking at the underpaid and under powered roles they frequently advertise via the Reg, they aren't going to get any better at it any time soon.

      Out of interest, would anybody round here take a role with GCHQ? Why would anyone take a poorly paid, unthanked role, in a badly managed bureaucracy, spying on your fellow citizens to achieve nothing?

      1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

        Re: Think about this @ AC

        Methinks all of those woes, AC, are as a result of weak short sighted leadership(s).

      2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Think about this

        "Why would anyone take a poorly paid, unthanked role, in a badly managed bureaucracy, spying on your fellow citizens to achieve nothing?"

        Job for life, good pension :-)

        1. hplasm
          Big Brother

          Re: Think about this

          "Job for life, good pension :-)"

          Retire as a dead body in a holdall...

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Think about this

          "Why would anyone take a poorly paid, unthanked role, in a badly managed bureaucracy, spying on your fellow citizens to achieve nothing?"

          I think it's possible that some snoopers actually get a kick out of it. Certainly Snowden said that nude pictures were routinely circulated at the NSA. So maybe GCHQ does do a good job of hoovering up paedos and perverts --- onto its workforce.

          1. Afernie

            Re: Think about this

            "I think it's possible that some snoopers actually get a kick out of it."

            What on earth could possibly make you think that?

            I particularly like all the 'legal' and 'ethical' caveats they apply in the previous bullet point, almost immediate followed by what amounts to "nudge, nudge, wink wink."

        3. KeithR

          Re: Think about this

          "Job for life, good pension :-)"

          That Daily Mail bullshit was old (and bullshit) twenty years ago. It's no less bullshit today.

  8. Warm Braw Silver badge

    Mr Justice Burton, President of the IPT

    Mr Justice Burton was first a Scholar at Eton College and then at Balliol College, Oxford, where he read Classics and then Law, obtaining his MA: he was a lecturer in law at Balliol from 1970 to 1973. He was called to the Bar in 1970, became a QC in 1984, and was appointed a High Court Judge in 1998. He had a busy commercial practice in the Queen’s Bench Division.

    Clearly the best man they could find to hold the establishment to account.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Big Brother

      Re: Mr Justice Burton, President of the IPT

      [He] became a QC in 1984

      The year or the book?

  9. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Still Failing to Capitalise on Source Intelligence Supply and Generation In-House of the Same

    The problem and disappointment is that GCHQ are after the fact reactive rather than before or during the fact proactive and leading.

    And as for there being any evidence of their being HyperRadioProActive and in Command and Control of Cyber Base Events, ..... well, what do you think about that.. ‽

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Still Failing to Capitalise on Source Intelligence Supply and Generation In-House of the Same

      What about the case that you consider them necessary, and so seed a document, so you can campaign for them to get a pay rise? But then the thick chumps in HR don't see what you're doing, and so ring your boss to get you sacked?

      Is that possible?

  10. Christoph

    "subject to strict safeguards and world-leading oversight arrangements."

    So don't worry, you can be absolutely certain that when they have taken control of your phone and switched on its microphone, there is no way that they will listen in when it is in your bedroom overnight, make copies of all the juicy bits, and pass them round all their mates to listen to. Trust me!

    1. Chris G Silver badge

      @Christoph: You think they get turned on by the sound of snoring and farting?

      1. NumptyScrub

        You think they get turned on by the sound of snoring and farting?

        Do a google search for that, and prepare to be amazed at just how far down the Rule 34 rabbit hole goes...

        Also have a bottle of vodka handy so you can attempt to erase the memories :'(

  11. Al fazed
    Happy

    OMG !

    It's when they legalise their previous illegal activities that it makes me wonder just how far will they go "over the line" when that line is, "OK you can take the lot, do what thou wilt".

    I imagine their new level of activities will become something like, OK we now have all this info on potential perp "x" legally, so what shit can we make up with it to fit them up, destroy their career and family life and put them behind bars in prison, or better still in a lunatic asylum ?

    I suspect they have been f*cking about with my PC, but I have no proof of this, just that the device seems to have a mind of it's own and stuff I used to do quite easily has become a pain in the arse or near impossible to accomplish. Oh sorry my mistake, that is apparently MS Windows 7/8/10's normal behaviour and no, they are not part of ISIS as far as I am aware, they are supposedly on our side.

    When will GCHQ bring this terrorist organisation to book ?

    ALF

    1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

      OMG ! How Sad

      Is GCHQ Microsoft Operating System reliant?

      Is that them owned/pwnd?

      And what of HMG? Are they in the same leaking vessel as vassal?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: OMG ! How Sad

        Is GCHQ Microsoft Operating System reliant? Is that them owned/pwnd?

        By whom? GCHQ and NSA are ultimately the main operating divisions of the same anglophone hegemony, so the idea of either owning the other is not really applicable. At a level, yes, both Yanks and Brits will be spying on each other, anxious that the other side might be withholding some juicy titbits, but for all practical purposes they are indistinguishable. As evidenced by the times when the NSA have blanched at doing some act, and GCHQ have done the work on their behalf. And likewise, I'd wager that GCHQ don't spy on British politicians - they'll get the NSA to do it for them.

        1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

          Re:Re: OMG ! How Sad @AC

          GCHQ and NSA are ultimately the main operating divisions of the same anglophone hegemony, so the idea of either owning the other is not really applicable. …. Anonymous Coward

          That may or may not be so, AC, but in either case are they Master Blaster of All Fate or Servant Slave to Destiny? Do they lead fronts from the front autonomously or work to order from the rear?

          Only the one is worthy of donning intelligence’s mantel for wearing in fronts displaying and running presentations of future’s novel progress.

          1. Omar Smith
            Facepalm

            Re: Re:OMG ! How Sad @AC

            Tell me, wh3n d1d y0u f1r57 n071c3 GCHQ 4nd MI5 5py1n6 0n y0u 7hr0u6h 7h3 73l3v1510n, cause y0u d0 533m 70 b3 so kn0wl364bl3 0n 7h3 5ubj3c7. 1f y0u 7h1nk wr171n6 like 7h15 is cl3v3r 0r 4mu51n6, y0u'r3 d3lud1n6 y0ur53lf, 17 15 ne1th3r, wh47 17 15 - 15 fuck1n6 ann0y1ng.

          2. Chris G Silver badge

            Re: Re:OMG ! How Sad @AC

            Leading from the front or following orders at the rear?

            I think they are using Bruce Lee's analogy; "Be water my friend", they go with the flow and take the shape and style that suits the moment and the situation. Good fieldcraft for spies!

      2. Marketing Hack Silver badge
        Windows

        Re: OMG ! How Sad

        Quick! Someone check the Microsoft official partners list to see if GCHQ is on it!

        (That would explain so much!)

  12. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge
    Big Brother

    Now GCHQ has

    this hacking power and its legal.... how about them launching themselves on hacking the ransomware dudes in the story next to this one?

    Nope... too difficult... lets just listen to what everyone says on the internet... lets just hope the software wont trigger a raid on me when I say Jihad, nuclear, tommorrow at 9am , and bomb

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Now GCHQ has

      I think the problem is that the trails eventually run into other states: usually hostile to the West. Police power tends to have its limits when one sovereign state is being stymied by another.

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