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Big companies snoop on public more than GCHQ, says spy chief

Director of GCHQ, Sir Iain Lobhan says private firms are the ones who know share data and know everything about you.

From the Telegraph: Private firms snoop far more on the public than the spy agencies, the head of GCHQ has said.

Sir Iain Lobban, Director of the intelligence agency, said it was the “commercial companies” who know everything about people and share the data with each other.

There is an ongoing row over the level of snooping powers the police and intelligence agencies should have.

But Sir Iain’s comments came as it emerged three of the UK’s main mobile phone companies automatically provided data on customers to the police if asked.

One employee suggested requests for information is handed over “like a cash machine”. 

 Theresa May, the Home Secretary, wants to expand snooping powers to make it easier for the police and intelligence agencies to monitor suspect activity in an ever expanding online world.

It is feared the capability to track terrorists and extremists is diminishing because of their increased use of social media such as chat rooms and Skype.

Internet companies are not required to store such levels of detail of their customer activity and agencies fear it is leaving gaps in monitoring abilities.

The Liberal Democrats killed off a recent attempt to expand the powers, dubbed the snooper’s charter, but Mrs May has pledged to revive the proposals if the Conservatives win an overall majority at the next election.

But in his first print interview, Sir Iain told the Daily Telegraph that the public should be more concerned with what private companies were during with their personal information.

“Look, who has the info on you? It’s the commercial companies, not us, who know everything – a massive sharing of data,” he said.

An investigation by the Guardian Newspaper suggests that three of UK’s big four mobile phone networks are providing customer data to police forces automatically through Ripa

The Guardian reports: Three of the UK’s four big mobile phone networks have made customers’ call records available at the click of a mouse to police forces through automated systems, a Guardian investigation has revealed.

EE, Vodafone and Three operate automated systems that hand over customer data “like a cash machine”,as one phone company employee described it.

Eric King, deputy director of Privacy International, a transparency watchdog, said: “If companies are providing communications data to law enforcement on automatic pilot, it’s as good as giving police direct access [to individual phone bills].”

O2, by contrast, is the only major phone network requiring staff to review all police information requests, the company said.

Mobile operators must by law store a year of call records of all of their customers, which police forces and other agencies can then access without a warrant using the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa).

Ripa is the interception law giving authority to much of GCHQ’s mass surveillance. The law was again under the spotlight recently after it was used to identify sources of journalists from at least two national newspapers, the Sun and the Mail on Sunday.

Documents from software providers and conversations with mobile companies staff reveal how automatic this system has become, with the “vast majority” of records demanded by police delivered through automated systems, without the involvement of any phone company staff.

The Home Office argues communications data is “a critical tool” and its use of Ripa was “necessary and proportionate”.

Despite politicians’ assurances that the UK laws requiring phone companies to keep records would not create a state database of private communications, critics argue that the practice comes very close to doing so. King warned that “widespread, automatic access of this nature” meant the UK telecoms industry “essentially already provides law enforcement with the joined-up databases they claimed they didn’t have when pushing for the ‘snooper’s charter’.”