UK government filing raises fears about misuse of hacking powers

UK intelligence agency GCHQ maintained in a submission that it operates within the law

A legal filing by the U.K. government has raised fears that the country's intelligence service GCHQ is misusing its powers to hack telecommunications companies in other countries.

The document was made public by Privacy International and the Chaos Computer Club, both claimants in a lawsuit filed last year against GCHQ over its spying practices. In the filing, which is part of the case, the U.K. government claims it has the right to break into computers anywhere in the world, even if they are not connected to a crime or a threat to national security, the groups said.

In a part of the document titled "collateral intrusion," the U.K. government stated that it can conduct "equipment interference activity specifically against individuals who are not intelligence targets in their own right," adding that those intrusions should be regarded as intended.

While GCHQ needs a warrant approved by the U.K.'s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, who oversees the intelligence service, hacking outside Britain is subject to a much lower standard for approval, requiring only a "broad class of operations" to be authorized by the official, Privacy International said. GCHQ does not have to identify a specific target and does not explicitly have to identify a connection of a threat to national security or a serious crime, it added.

The group is worried GCHQ has used this broad hacking power to allegedly hack into Belgacom using malware. The same measure could also have been used to justify targeting Gemalto, the world's largest maker of SIM cards, in a reported effort by GCHQ and its U.S. counterpart, the National Security Agency, to obtain encryption keys to spy on mobile phone conversations, Privacy International said.

The intelligence agencies likely broke in but didn't manage to steal encryption keys, according to Gemalto.

The government has granted itself incredible powers to break into devices and now, without any legal justification, they think that they have the authority to target anyone they wish, Privacy International said, adding that the hacking without suspicion must come to an end.

GCHQ brushed off Privacy International's worries. Assertions that GCHQ can carry out computer network exploitation (CNE) operations to gain covert access to equipment in an unregulated way are simply untrue, it said in a statement. "Strict legal controls, safeguards and requirements apply to this activity, which can only be carried out for the statutory purposes e.g. national security," it added.

The government document relies heavily on a draft code on equipment interference. That code was released by the U.K. government on Feb. 6, the same day the U.K. Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) ruled that GCHQ had unlawfully shared information with NSA before December 2014.

The draft code has not yet been approved by the U.K. Parliament, and it is open for public comment until March 20.

The Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee last week found that the U.K.'s intelligence and security agencies are doing the necessary work to uncover threats, for instance by accessing Internet traffic through bulk interception. The agencies do not seek to circumvent the law, the committee found. Nevertheless, it did recommend that unnecessarily complicated and unclear legislation governing the intrusive capabilities of those services should be replaced by a single, clear rule.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, online payment issues as well as EU technology policy and regulation for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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