GCHQ can hack your systems at will – thanks to 'soft touch' oversight

Privacy International battle exposes 'bulk' warrants

Documents released by GCHQ to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal suggest the agency may be allowed to hack multiple computers in the UK under single "thematic" or "class" warrants.

Responding to complaints brought by Privacy International and seven global internet and communication service providers, the British spy agency told the tribunal it was applying for bulk hacking warrants from secretaries of state and then deciding internally whether it was necessary and proportionate to hack the individuals targeted.

The "soft touch" oversight regime for GCHQ's offensive hacking activities has been revealed during an IPT hearing, which has received two sets of complaints to hear over the course of this week – one from Privacy International, and one from an international coalition of internet and communications service providers which Privacy International assisted.

The complaints regard the offensive hacking, or computer network exploitation (CNE) activities, of GCHQ, which are alleged to have been unlawful under the Computer Misuse Act 1990, as well as in violation of Articles 8 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The agency denies the allegations.

In a 31-page Amended Statement of Grounds (PDF), the seven ISP and CSP claimants state their proceedings concern "GCHQ's apparent targeting of internet and communications service providers in order to compromise and gain unauthorised access to their network infrastructures in pursuit of its mass surveillance activities."

Privacy International's 25-page Amended Statement of Grounds (PDF) specifically concerns the spooks' CNE activities, including its development of malware (such as "Warrior Pride") which may leave devices "more vulnerable to attack by third parties (such as credit card fraudsters), thereby risking the user’s personal data more broadly", and of doing so without a legal basis. Privacy International said:

Privacy International claimed that previously secret documents, and witness statements produced by GCHQ, show that:

  • GCHQ confirmed that the Secretary of State does not individually sign off on most hacking operations abroad, but only when "additional sensitivity" or "political risk" are involved [Witness Statement of Ciaran Martin (PDF), paragraphs 65, 72C].
  • Overseas hacking does not require authorisations to name or describe a particular piece of equipment, or an individual user of the equipment [56].
  • The Commissioner only formally reviewed the individual targets of GCHQ hacks overseas in April 2015 [71I].
  • The Intelligence and Security Committee Report in March 2015 called MI5's and SIS's failure to keep accurate records of their overseas hacking activities "unacceptable", [ISC report, p.66] as it makes effective oversight impossible [71L].

Responding to these allegations in his witness statement (PDF), GCHQ's Director-General for Cybersecurity, accepted that such interference causes additional damage. However, GCHQ merely attempts to "minimise that risk".

The complaints follow the outing of GCHQ's "Operation Socialist", in which the spooks attacked Belgacom, the largest telecommunications company in Belgium, to gain access to its core GRC routers – ultimately for the purpose of running man-in-the-middle attacks against targets roaming with smartphones.

The coalition complaint stated: "It is important to note that the employees of Belgacom were not targeted because they posed any legitimate national security concern. Instead, they were subject to intrusive surveillance because they held positions as administrators of Belgacom’s networks. By hacking the employees, GCHQ could secure access to the customers."

All of the accusations regarding GCHQ's conduct were reliant upon on public disclosures made by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, which have been published in various outlets by the journalists to whom he has entrusted the documents.

The IPT heard the claimants' submissions this morning and will hear the responses tomorrow. The hearing is set to continue until Friday 4 December. ®

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