Accusations that the UK government’s surveillance operation, GCHQ, used malicious software to hijack users’ computers and smartphones, have led to renewed calls for better protection of online users’ rights.
Following on from the recent controversy around mass government surveillance sparked by Edward Snowden’s revelations earlier this year, these new allegations by seven international ISPs have put a renewed focus on the growing distrust of governments and their apparent easy willingness to interfere with the lives of private individuals and businesses.
Privacy International, a UK-based group campaigning for the protection of the right to privacy, led the filing of the case. It is claiming that personal data gathered by GCHQ during the illegal hack was then analysed and monitored by GCHQ, despite the organisation having no genuine cause for concern over the users’ intentions.
Eric King, deputy director of Privacy International, who we contacted last night, emphasised what he sees as the clear violation of citizens’ rights behind the activity. “GCHQ’s actions (in) hacking infrastructure are unlawful,” he said. “Their current activities must come to an immediate end.”
King invoked the proposal of web inventor, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, of a digital Magna Carta. He said: “Our fundamental human rights apply online just as much as offline. This case is yet another step in ensuring spy agencies, like GCHQ, are acting in accordance with them.”
What’s more, this is clearly not just a UK issue – the international nature of the ISPs involved highlights the need for an equality of rights across the globe for all users of the internet.
Of course, there are some blurred lines. The revelation this week that Facebook was conducting experiments with its users based on personal data has reminded us that many internet users accept that they need to provide personal information to take advantage of free services like Google and Facebook. Users sign up to the T&Cs on trust – usually without reading them – and so this sort of scandal knocks that trust. But ultimately the users resign themselves to the reality that these service providers make money by collecting and selling access to this personal data and they should expect such unethical behaviour.
But it is a different issue when it comes to the state. Research suggests internet users are far more concerned about government surveillance and data collection – and rightly so.
Governments are upholders of the laws that protect our freedoms and when they betray that trust we need to take action against those responsible.
The case against GCHQ was filed yesterday morning with the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), a London-based court which deals with complaints surrounding misuse of surveillance by political bodies. Of course, it remains to be seen if the allegations prove to have foundation – GCHQ denies any wrong doing – but rather than sit on their collective hands waiting for a ruling the governments of the world should be working on the Global Digital Magna Carta. Just as the original one did in the thirteenth century, it can lay out the basic principles of freedom and limit the powers of the state and, in doing so, also protect the medium which individuals, businesses and governments have all come to rely on.
It is an uneasy time for the tech industry which is uncomfortable being associated with a debate around issues like ethics and human rights. Surely, now is as good a time as there will ever be for these highly influential players to do something they are much more comfortable with – promoting their own self-interest and campaign to preserve the independence of the internet.