Big Brother Britain: UK’s MI5 Spy Agency Illegally Held Citizens’ Data for Years

"Thames house is the home of the british intelligence service, commonly known as MI5.
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The United Kingdom’s domestic security service, MI5, has been found to have illegally retained private data of citizens for nearly half a decade.

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which serves as a watchdog for complaints against government surveillance, found that MI5, the rough domestic equivalent to the FBI, illegally held large volumes of intercepted data of citizens from late 2014 until 2019 as the agency failed to implement the proper review and deletion standards and safeguards under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) and the Investigatory Powers Act (IPA).

“The holding and handling of data in those circumstances was unlawful on the basis that under the relevant provisions of RIPA and IPA satisfactory safeguards relating to RRD (retention, review, and disposal) were not in place,” the watchdog said in a release on Monday.

Although MI5, alongside other intelligence agencies such as MI6 and GCHQ, are granted broad authority to intercept phone calls and digital communications, such acts are only intended to be executed in the service of national security.

The three-judge panel at the IPT said that there were “serious failings in compliance with the statutory obligations of MI5 from late 2014 onwards”, and that “those failings ought to have been addressed urgently by the management board [of MI5]”.

The Tribunal also found that the Home Office had failed to make “adequate enquiries” into the spying agency after several red flags were raised about their data collection and retention methods since 2016. The judges said that the Home Office “did not have grounds to be satisfied that effective safeguards applied to warrants where there had been no assessment or effective investigation into compliance with [retention, review, and disposal]”.

“We have made findings of serious failures by MI5 and the secretary of state,” the ruling said, continuing to declare that there was “widespread corporate failure”.

The ruling came in response to legal action brought forward by the civil liberties advocacy group Liberty and Privacy International.

Commenting on the ruling, Liberty lawyer Megan Goulding said: “This judgment confirms what we at Liberty and others have been saying for years — surveillance safeguards are not fit for purpose and fail to protect our fundamental privacy rights.”

The legal director of Privacy International, Caroline Wilson Palow said: “We’ve been here many times before. UK intelligence agencies seriously intrude on thousands or even millions of people’s privacy, we call them out, then the government promises better safeguards. Today’s ruling is especially troubling because it confirms that those safeguards can be illusory.”

A spokesman for the Home Office: “MI5 consistently work to a high standard in challenging circumstances and treat the protection of personal information with the utmost seriousness. Substantial action has been taken over a number of years to address the concerns raised in this case.

“We accept the judgment delivered and will continue to drive forward work to ensure we and our partners remain fully compliant with the law.”

The findings come just days after it was reported that the British military’s controversial “information warfare unit”, the 77th Brigade, led a wide-ranging surveillance operation to spy on anti-lockdown figures, including members of parliament such as former government minister David Davis and journalists including Toby Young and Peter Hitchens.

The unit, which previously has targeted al-Qaeda and ISIS, was, according to a whistleblower, turned on the British public during the lockdowns to counter supposed misinformation being spread by academics, activists, journalists, and politicians.  In addition, the report found that civil servants and artificial intelligence were used by the government to censor terms associated with anti-lockdown sentiment from social media.

In 2020, the Ministry of Defence denied targeting UK citizens, claiming that operations were “not being directed at the UK population; 77th Brigade do not, and have never, conducted any kind of action against British citizens”.

Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, which obtained the documents showing that the unit had indeed surveilled lockdown critics, said: “This is an alarming case of mission creep, where public money and military power have been misused to monitor academics, journalists, campaigners and MPs who criticised the Government, particularly during the pandemic.

“The fact that this political monitoring happened under the guise of ‘countering misinformation’ highlights how, without serious safeguards, the concept of ‘wrong information’ is open to abuse and has become a blank cheque the Government uses in an attempt to control narratives online.”

Follow Kurt Zindulka on Twitter here @KurtZindulka


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