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Mass surveillance in the UK: Charles Farr’s flawed arguments

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Hang on! Just because UK government security official Charles Farr says GCHQ et al have done nothing unlawful in their mass digital surveillance, that’s no reason to believe him. You wouldn’t believe a burglar rifling through your drawers; why believe the spokesmen for the people rifling through your personal emails and internet searches?

Farr has put in a defence in the case brought by Privacy International against the Government, not a statement of the law, yet it is being treating as gospel truth. In particular people are demanding the law be changed – conceding that the surveillance is currently lawful (among them pro-security services types such as Lady Neville-Jones).

In fact a judge has not ruled in the case yet, and there are fundamental flaws in Farr’s argument that UK-originated digital material on overseas servers is fair game even though it originated in or returned to the “British Islands” (in the quaint formulation of the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act).

For starters it is strongly arguable in law that nothing in the Act can sanction unreasonable mass surveillance – since that was not the purpose of the Act. RIPA was intended to enact a European Directive banning such downloading and storing of personal material and a judge will interpret it in that light. He or she is likely to take a dim view of any alleged “loopholes” in it. (This argument is made briefly below and at length here.)

But Farr’s case is further flawed – not least by a disingenuous attempt to claim parliamentary sanction for mass surveillance on the basis of an arcane exchange in the House of Lords one July evening in the year 2000.

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