London, UK—The British intelligence agencies are once again in the limelight for the wrong reasons.
MI5, MI6, and GCHQ are accused of stealing private data from the Privacy International rights charity.
Only a week ago, the GCHQ had been targeted by the European Court of Human Rights for a breach of human rights over a mass surveillance operation. The British intelligence services have admitted that they illegally gathered data about the UK-based charity. Previously, the intelligence services had denied that their Bulk Communications Data (BCD) and Bulk Personal Dataset (BPD) surveillance operations targeted any company or individual who was not suspected of illegal activities.
In response to the intrusion, Privacy International stated that “The UK intelligence agencies’ bulk collection of communications data and personal data have been shown to be as vast we have always imagined—it sweeps in almost everyone, including human rights organisations like Privacy International.”
Caroline Wilson-Palow, the charity’s Chief Counsel, added that “We do not know why MI5 reviewed Privacy International’s data, but the fact that it happened at all should raise serious questions for all of us. Should a domestic intelligence agency charged with protecting national security be spying on a human rights organisation based in London?”
The MI5 was established in the early 20th century in response to German espionage. Today, its role is to ensure the U.K.’s national security. It has been the lead agency in the fight against Islamic militant terrorism.
The MI6 is the foreign espionage agency—think of James Bond. It’s mostly concerned with overseas operations.
The GCHQ is responsible for providing signals intelligence (SIGINT) to and securing the communications of the British government and Armed Forces.
“Privacy International urges the UK government to critically examine its mass surveillance powers, as enshrined in the Investigatory Powers Act 2016. The UK should be a beacon of light in a world where democracy is under threat. Its refusal to curtail the mass surveillance powers of its intelligence agencies casts a shadow over all of us,” added Wilson Palow.
MI5 Chief Andrew Parker had previously highlighted the need for such surveillance operations and for increased cooperation between Western countries. “European intelligence cooperation today is simply unrecognisable to what it looked like five years ago. In today’s uncertain world, we need that shared strength more than ever,” Parker said in a rare speech this past May.
The real and constant threat of terrorist attacks has necessitated such surveillance programs. Individual privacy is shunned for the security and prosperity of the society. Many, of course, would take offence in that. Yet war—even an undeclared one—mandates sacrifices. Some just happen to be more pronounced than others. The danger, however, is when an operation veers of its purpose, or when private intelligence gathered with protection in mind gets leaked or used for other reasons. Then, it is not a question of protection, but of intrusion.