Have You Been Spied On? Here’s How to Find Out
By Eric King
In the last 48 hours, over 10,000 people have joined an international campaign to learn whether Britain’s intelligence agency, GCHQ, has illegally spied on them.
This opportunity is possible thanks to a historic court victory in the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), a secret court set up to hear complaints against the British Security Services. Two weeks ago, Privacy International won the first-ever case against GCHQ in the Tribunal, which ruled that the agency acted unlawfully in accessing millions of private communications collected by America’s National Security Agency, the NSA, up until December 2014.
Because of this victory, now anyone in the world can ask if their records, as collected by the NSA, were unlawfully shared with GCHQ. That’s why we’re asking the public to get involved—it’s an extraordinary chance to hold intelligence agencies accountable. The public has a right to know if they were spied on illegally, and Privacy International wants to help make that as easy as possible.
Unfortunately, the IPT can’t act by itself; it needs people to come forward and file complaints. That’s where you come in. We’ve minimized the amount of information you need to provide: just your name, email address, and phone number.
The IPT will use that information to search for your communications in GCHQ’s massive databases. Rest assured, we’ll do everything we can to ensure GCHQ only uses your details for the purposes of establishing whether they spied on you illegally.
Over 10,000 people have signed up already, and we expect thousands more to do so over the upcoming weeks. But it’s going to be a long fight, and it will likely take months for the IPT to process all the complaints. If they find that your communications were illegally shared with GCHQ, they will be obligated to tell you.
This is a rare opportunity to gain access to a sprawling and secretive spy agency. In some people’s minds, intelligence sharing means men in trench coats silently sliding manila envelopes marked TOP SECRET across tables in smoke-filled rooms. While such practices exist, they represent only a tiny slice of intelligence-sharing activities. The vast majority involve the massive exchange of bulk raw intelligence data. It is this practice, little understood and shrouded in secrecy, that has escaped the scrutiny of the courts and the public.
The receipt of unanalyzed intercepted material from partners like the NSA makes up a huge percentage of the raw data crunched by GCHQ. This raw data includes emails, text messages, and locational records from your smart phone. And it doesn’t matter if this information is only processed by a computer. Whether it’s a machine or a person, the violation of privacy occurs at the point of interception.
Through their secret intelligence-sharing relationship with the NSA, GCHQ has intermittently enjoyed unrestricted access to PRISM—the NSA’s means of directly accessing data and content handled by some of the world’s largest Internet companies, including Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google, Facebook, Skype, and Apple. GCHQ has also had access to other parts of the NSA’s Upstream collections, through which data is accessed as it flows through communications infrastructure, including CO-TRAVELER, which collects five billion locational records a day, and DISHFIRE, which harvests 194 million text messages daily. The top five programs within Upstream created 160 billion interception records in one month alone.
Indeed, in his witness statement to the IPT in May 2014, Charles Farr, director of the UK’s Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, attested to the outsize scope of U.S. intelligence. “The immense value of [GCHQ’s relationships with the NSA] for the UK in part reflects the fact that the U.S. intelligence agencies are far larger and much better resourced than the [British] Intelligence Services,” he said. “In simple terms, [the United States] can provide the UK with intelligence that the UK, with its far more limited resources, could not realistically obtain by itself.”
The intelligence agencies’ culture of secrecy has allowed them to avoid public accountability. Whether it’s secret hearings in closed courtrooms or committees equipped only with rubber stamps, GCHQ has never been forced to answer to the public.
Chances are, at some point over the past decade, your communications were swept up by one of the NSA’s mass surveillance programs and passed onto GCHQ. We think you have a right to know whether that’s the case, and if so, to demand that data be deleted. Privacy International wants to help you assert those rights.
Privacy International is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.