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UK spy agencies are unlawfully collecting social media data on ‘millions’ of people

HUMAN RIGHTS GROUP Privacy International (PI) has obtained ‘previously unseen’ government documents that reveal that UK spy agencies are collecting social media information on potentially millions of people.

These documents have come to light as a result of an ongoing legal challenge Privacy International has brought against UK intelligence agencies’ use of bulk personal data collection as an investigatory power, and is the “first concrete example” of information collected by the UK intelligence agencies and held in large databases.

The bulk personal datasets (BPD) are said to potentially include information on millions of individuals who hold no “legitimate intelligence interest”

It’s unclear exactly what information has been collected and what it’s being used for, but it is sorted into categories including “biographical details,” “commercial and financial activities,” “communications,” “travel data,” and “legally privileged communications.”

These social media databases, collected and accessed by gaining access to private companies’ databases, were shared with nation’s security and foreign intelligence services, PI said on Tuesday, along with industry partners and foreign intelligence agencies, either by sending out information on disks or by allowing outside organisations to access the agency’s databases remotely.

Ben Jaffey QC, representing Privacy International, argued on Tuesday: “It could be deployed in support of an unlawful detention or torture programme, in the violent interrogation of a suspect, or used to identify a target for a lethal operation. It may be (overtly or covertly) passed on to another country, even though the UK would be unwilling to share directly with that state.

“There is no evidence that the control principle is operated or respected by the partners with whom data is shared.”

What’s more, letters obtained by PI reveal that the Investigatory Powers Commissioner (IPC), the body tasked with overseeing intelligence agencies’ activities, was kept in the dark as GCHQ shared these massive databases, potentially for decades. 

In letters shared with PI, the IPC said that there are “no safeguards” in place to prevent the misuse of the systems by third parties.

Millie Graham Wood, solicitor at Privacy International said: “The intelligence agencies’ practices in relation to bulk data were previously found to be unlawful.

“After three years of litigation, just before the court hearing we learn not only are safeguards for sharing our sensitive data non-existent, but the government has databases with our social media information and is potentially sharing access to this information with foreign governments.  The risks associated with these activities are painfully obvious.

“We are pleased the IPCO is keen to look at these activities as a matter of urgency and the report is publicly available in the near future.”

Last month, PI warned that 21 EU member states are retaining personal data when they shouldn’t be. Furthermore, it said that none of those states are in compliance with human rights standards as applied to their own legislation on data retention. µ

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