Privacy International has launched a legal bid to stop GCHQ and British intelligence agents from "unlawfully" spying on Brits using malware.
Its complaint [PDF] to the UK’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal is a formal challenge to snoops' use of malicious software and hacking to surveil people. The campaigning charity fears millions of innocent people may have had their machines attacked and personal data slurped by British g-men.
A panel of 10 judges and QCs appointed by the Queen sit on the tribunal, which probes complaints about surveillance operations carried out by GCHQ, MI5, MI6, the government, local authorities and the police.
Its hearings are often held in secret, and there's no way to appeal its findings short of going to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. If a complaint is upheld, the taxpayer-funded tribunal can order the destruction of records, or dish out financial compensation, among other measures.
Privacy International, in its filing yesterday, said hacking targets' computers and gadgets, and infecting them with spy-ware, was tantamount to "entering someone's house, searching through his filing cabinets, diaries and correspondence, and then planting devices to permit constant surveillance in future".
Campaigners highlighted some of the infiltration techniques linked to GCHQ that were revealed in documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
According to the top-secret cache, British spooks use software called Nosey Smurf to secretly monitor devices' microphone and record conversations from afar. They use Gumfish to covertly snap photos using webcams, Foggybottom to collect passwords typed into web browsers, Grok to log keystrokes, and Tracker Smurf to identify the locations of targets.
They are also apparently able to retrieve content from smartphones, including text messages, emails, web history, call records, videos, photos, address books, notes, and calendars. This can be done by installing dodgy apps on the target's handset, if not outright hacking the device, it's claimed.
Privacy International said: "These forms of invasive surveillance allow intelligence agencies access to the most personal and sensitive information about an individual’s life – their location, age, gender, marital status, finances, health information, ethnicity, sexual orientation, education, family relationships, private communications, and potentially, their most intimate thoughts."
Privacy International regards the use of these capabilities as a violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guards the right to privacy, and Article 10, protecting the right to freedom of expression.
It hopes the tribunal will put a stop to the electronic spying if British intelligence is found to be breaking the law.
Eric King, deputy director of Privacy International, said: "Intelligence agencies can do all this without you even knowing about it, and can invade the privacy of anyone around the world with a few clicks.
"All of this is being done under a cloak of secrecy without any public debate or clear lawful authority. Arbitrary powers such as these are the purview of dictatorships not democracies. Unrestrained, unregulated government spying of this kind is the antithesis of the rule of law and government must be held accountable for their actions.”
GCHQ has refused to comment on this week's complaint. The last time it was accused of hacking innocents' mobile phones and computers, the eavesdropping nerve-centre said: "All of GCHQ's work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework that ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the secretary of state, the interception and intelligence services commissioners, and the parliamentary intelligence and security committee.
"All our operational processes rigorously support this position." ®