back to article Letters prove GCHQ bends laws to spy at will. So what's the point of privacy safeguards?

Letters between GCHQ and an official overseeing the spy agency shed new light on how Blighty's eavesdroppers interpret laws to suit their surveillance efforts. The memos were obtained by campaign group Privacy international and handed to The Register today. Although the letters date from 2004, they show how the agency is …

  1. Vimes

    Historically it would seem that even secretaries of state don't view the law as being particularly important. Just look at Philip Hammond as foreign secretary and his lack of knowledge over what he was actually signing when it came to warrants.

    As always I would recommend getting in touch with your MP to tell them what you think of this, particularly since MPs themselves are routinely being stripped of their own privacy when it comes to emails. has always been useful for this in the past.

    1. MrXavia
      Big Brother

      Unfortunately there is little point contacting most MP's, they won't change their minds....

      1. Adam 52 Silver badge

        Regardless of their minds, 23% of MPs are part of the government anyway and therefore vote with the government regardless of the interests of their constituents.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          My England MP always votes with his party line - except when the Vatican directs him to vote against things that challenge their dogma.

        2. Vimes

          @Adam 52

          There are a few notable exceptions to that rule. Robin Cook for example resigned rather than support the invasion of Iraq.

  2. Warm Braw Silver badge

    Lack of knowledge over ... signing

    This is a general problem. Although a secretary of state might be theoretically "responsible" for the decision, in practice they're not going to read everything that passes over their desk. If they do read it, they'll only know what they've been told by officials and in the rare event of asking a question, they're only going to be able to ask questions based on the selective information they've been given and will likely get selective answers in response. The notion that "an elected politician makes the decision to authorize an investigation rather than a civil service official" is purely theoretical, but it's a great form of absolution for the officials involved.

    Edit: As the letter clearly shows, the alternative of having a judge approve warrants is of little use if there is a ready supply of retirees from the court of appeal who don't feel the need to keep up with the law or, presumably, rock the boat.

    1. Vimes

      Re: Lack of knowledge over ... signing

      Except that this isn't a problem in any specific request. I'd agree that reading every single detail would be potentially excessive.

      This is about general knowledge of the law and the power that the warrants have. I would expect them to know that even if they fail to understand details of any specific case.

      If you saw him being questioned at select committee hearings then you would have seen him bumble along making mistakes (or in his words 'inadvertently misleading' the committee when those mistakes were highlighted by MPs that actually had some idea of what the law was at the time).

    2. SImon Hobson Silver badge

      Re: Lack of knowledge over ... signing

      > ... in practice they're not going to read everything that passes over their desk

      Indeed, and Yes [Prime] Minister had, as I recall, some very good examples of how the civil, service could manipulate an MP to sign whatever they wanted signed. By all accounts, it wasn't exactly fiction.

      1. xslogic

        Re: Lack of knowledge over ... signing

        Ah yes. Yes, [Prime] Minister - the show that, apparently, had the civil servants saying they had ministers down pat - but the civil servants were a bit off. And the ministers said the civil servants were accurate - but the ministers weren't quite how they were portrayed...

  3. Bernard M. Orwell


    They still think we have an empire. How can people so out of touch with reality be entrusted with any decision making at all?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Empire?

      I don't think he mean't it literally.

      1. Captain Hogwash

        Re: I don't think he mean't it literally.

        However the choice of analogy is telling.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    This is exactly what I've been banging on about all this time. There's no point giving spooks rules because they won't have any intention of obeying them. In a sense, they can't, because if our lot are bound by published rules, then other country's spook outfits will take advantage of that and have them for breakfast.

    Meanwhile, legitimising this data collection will lead to it's misuse against the very people the government are supposed to be looking out for. If it's legitimised then we *will* get more abuses of the recycling bin and school catchment area type. Any civil servant with access and a grudge will be able to fit anyone up on spurious charges and these are only the minor types we've seen so can get much, much worse.

    Also worth considering is that it's creating a treasure trove of very personal information for hackers -domestic and foreign- to mine. How the shuddering fuck is this supposed to be doing anything at all to improve our fucking security?

    1. phuzz Silver badge

      So if I understand you, we shouldn't bother tightening up existing rules, because they'll be ignored anyway, and if we did tighten them up then that would make them looser because, um, actually it was about there I lost you.

      1. Brian Morrison

        The only way to fix this is to make the rules simple and effective, with large sharp teeth in the event of misuse.

        It doesn't mean leaving fishing in the databases a matter of a few keystrokes, it should mean logged access using cryptographic tokens which cannot be created without the say so of a judge.

        It should also mean that anyone who misuses access should be subject to an immediate minimum prison term of at least 3 years.

        Of course, I'd thoroughly prefer that the data isn't collected without good cause too, so in that respect the part of the 1984 Telecommunications Act that allowed it should be repealed and it should be replaced by a narrowly drawn law that allows for bulk collection only when a judicial warrant has been granted and this should be subject to regular and frequent review to assess the proportionality of the request in the light on new information.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @phuzz - No. Currently the data collection is illegal. This means that spook agencies cannot (or at least have a harder time) use the data as a weapon against the populace because they are not supposed to have it. Whether it's for blackmail, to consolidate personal power, or just slapping down someone they dislike, it is much much harder to use data in this way if the source of the data has to remain covert.

        If the data collection is legitimised, all bets are off. That will give a huge number of people the newfound ability to use the data and the court system to utterly fuck people's lives with impunity. We've already seen this with the RIPA Act. Now you think about all the data you're spaffing every day and tell me that you don't think that there's anything malicious that could be done with that.

        The second point was that the spook agencies will ignore the rules anyway. They always have and there's no reason whatsoever to believe that anything is going to change.

        The third point was that the Home Office is integrating all this data into one system. This is the exact opposite of what their job is supposed to be; and that is ensuring the security of the fucking people paying their bastard wages. Instead, they create a one-stop-shop of the detailed, intimate and personal details of a whole country for the browsing pleasure of anyone who can muster up a sufficiently competent team...and that would appear to include absolutely bloody everybody.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          A democratic Government should always have a concern about how a future not-so-democratic government could use the accumulated data. Therefore they should accept the lack of "efficiency" as the price to pay for a democratic system - where citizens or MPs do not have to think twice about what they say to whom in private.

          At the risk of Godwins Law - the Third Reich was founded on using the previous governments' benign data collections and emergency civil liberties suspensions.

          1. Charles 9 Silver badge

            But the people aren't willing to pay the price for inefficiency given how they complain about taxes now.

  5. Tom Chiverton 1

    If this has got your gander up, and you can get yourself to Manchester, why not come along to this neatly timed event :

    Or join ORG directly so we can work together to fix this shit.

    1. Richard Parkin

      If this has got your gander up

      "If this has got your gander up" - I know about swan-upping but gander- upping not so much. Maybe "dander" is what you were thing of?

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Isn't that the idea, to pass vague laws that can be manipulated to suit the desired outcome.

    It's probably why they use the term "Internet Connection Record".

    It's a record from anything connected to the internet, dumb fridge, car, home camera, baby monitor, dumb meter, dumb heating, tablet, phone, toaster.

    Though if they called it "Internet Browsing History" the shit would have hit the fan.

  7. Version 1.0 Silver badge

    Cynical? Me?

    You are looking at this from the wrong angle - the law is written to permit the agencies to step around it. Don't look at what the law forbids - look at what it doesn't mention and thus permits without regulation. Read it in the same way you would read an insurance policy - the front page tells you that everything is covered, the back pages explain why whatever happens is not covered.

  8. PaulR79

    Keeping up with rules is his job

    If you are overseeing something as huge as this then it is part of your JOB to keep up with the rules. If you can't / won't / don't then you are not doing your job and should be fired on the spot. I would really like to be surprised at these sorts of things but are any of us really surprised?

    Government in "laws don't apply to us" shocker - not really a shocker. The shocker is that when such revelations are made the story is nowhere to be seen on the large news outlets. Has the whole country adopted an attitude of "if it doesn't affect me right now I don't care"?

  9. energystar
    Paris Hilton

    "So what's the point of privacy safeguards?"

    "Maybe having a line or two of legislation to demand against?

    And if you refer tech safeguards. Well evidently, those don't work.

    Isn't Intelligence under a different framing? Should be. Efficacy reasons.

  10. Richard Parkin

    The horse has bolted ...

    There is no point in all these privacy safeguards, the horse has bolted so it's no good shutting the stable door. The solution, I believe, is reform of the voting system so we can get the buglers out more easily and so make them more responsive. I favour STV for this.

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      "The solution, I believe, is reform of the voting system "


      This has nothing to do with how anyone was elected.

      It has to do with a cabal of data fetishists for whom more data is always better and all data is best.

      1. Richard Parkin

        Re: "The solution, I believe, is reform of the voting system "

        So your solution is? People get the government they deserve.

        1. Vic

          Re: "The solution, I believe, is reform of the voting system "

          People get the government they deserve.

          This doesn't appear to be true. We get a choice of n numpties, all of whom will become data fetishists as soon as they achieve power, whatever they might have said beforehand...


  11. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Does Intelligence provide Prime Proprietary Lead or Work to Crazy Politically Incorrect Orders?

    Whenever it is accepted and understood that all communications are subject to easy eavesdropping, what does it tell you of security and intelligence services whenever so much is allowed through their systems to terrorise you. If they be the gatekeepers, then surely they be responsible for not acting on information which are collecting.

    It does beggar the questions, are they bright enough to deal with the competition and/or opponents or are the snowdened under and realistically unable to deliver anything other than everything tainted with their warnings of terror and future mayhem? You know, the news which media provides you with every day?

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Does Intelligence provide Prime Proprietary Lead or Work to Crazy Politically Incorrect Orders?

      I surmise it's simply too easy for a wolf to pass for a sheep, and once you're past the guards it's already too late to do anything. You have to be lucky forever. They only have to be lucky once.

  12. Baldy50

    Told you so!

    To those in previous threads that have likened me to some sort of government puppet with regards to privacy etc...!

    You know who you are.

  13. Mike Moyle

    Once again, officialdom demonstrates that the phrase "government oversight" can and does have two radically different meanings.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    if Queen Anne's Gate is an outpost of empire ...

    ... it confirms the Empire has finally shrunk down to central London ...

    1. energystar

      Re: if Queen Anne's Gate is an outpost of empire ...

      Still notices of the Empire.

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