Britain’s top counter-terrorism official has been forced to reveal a secret government policy justifying the mass surveillance of every Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google user in the United Kingdom, a group of rights organisations announced.

In a statement made public on Tuesday, Charles Farr, the Director General of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism, claims that the UK intelligence agency GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) is entitled to intercept web searches or communications between British residents if they are defined as 'external'. 

The interception of communications on Facebook and Google for example, are permitted by law because they are ‘external communications’ with servers based in the United States.

The distinction is significant due to the fact that Britain’s electronic intelligence agency, GCHQ has broad powers to intercept communications outside the country but needs a warrant and suspicion of wrongdoing.

British citizens will be alarmed to see their government justifying industrial-scale intrusion into their communications.

Michael Bochenek, Amnesty International's Senior Director for Law and Policy

Data scooping

Farr said data scooped up from Google searches or social platforms "cannot be read, looked at or listened to'' except in strictly limited circumstances.

Rules exist to limit the way data can be searched and how long it can be retained, but the full details of the regulations have never been made public.

International rights group Amnesty International said the surveillance amounted to a form of mass intrustion.

"British citizens will be alarmed to see their government justifying industrial-scale intrusion into their communications," Michael Bochenek, a senior director at Amnesty said.

Security services lean towards an entitlement to read and analyse all communications on US-based platforms, said James Welch, Legal Director of Liberty.

"If there was any remaining doubt that UK snooping laws need a radical overhaul there should be no longer. The agencies are operating in a legal and ethical vacuum; why the deafening silence from our elected representatives?"

The British government’s approach may also give room for GCHQ to intercept all communications in and outside the UK.

Source: Agencies