In Brief

How GCHQ can spy on your Facebook without a warrant

Top official reveals secret government policy justifying mass surveillance of social media users

Britain's top counter-terrorism official has revealed how the government is sidestepping the need for individual search warrants to spy on British Facebook and Google users.

Under UK law, "internal" communications between residents within the UK may only be intercepted with a specific warrant, issued only when there is suspicion of unlawful activity – a legal safeguard previously believed to extend to all British users, says The Guardian.

But Charles Farr, the director general of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism, has said interception without a warrant is permitted under law when communications go through services based in the United States or other foreign nations because they are deemed "external".

This includes "almost all" communications via Facebook and other social networking sites such as Twitter and YouTube, as well as webmail services Hotmail and Yahoo and web searches via Google, say campaigners at Privacy International.

"External" communications may be intercepted indiscriminately, even where there are no grounds to suspect any wrongdoing. The government is therefore able to search through, read, listen to and look at any communications between people in Britain through social networks based abroad, even when no wrongdoing is suspected, says Privacy International.

The only restriction on intercepting "external" communications is a ban on making a search using keywords or terms that mention a specific British person or residence, says the Daily Telegraph.

Michael Bochenek, senior director of international law and policy, at Amnesty International said: "British citizens will be alarmed to see their government justifying industrial-scale intrusion into their communications. The public should demand an end to this wholesale violation of their right to privacy."

Farr's statement was published as part of the government's defence against a legal challenge brought by Privacy International, Liberty, Amnesty International and other civil liberties organisations. The case, which was brought following disclosures by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, will be heard by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal next month.

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