GCHQ Given Green Light to Hack at Will

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The UK intelligence agency is to increase its use of large scale data hacking after claiming targeted operations are obsolete due to new technology. 

The decision, which has alarmed civil liberty and open rights groups, will see an increased use of “bulk equipment interference (EI) regime”. This allows the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) to target entire communication networks overseas.

GCHQ will be able to mass hack as a single warrant will cover entire classes of property, persons or conduct. It essentially provides the intelligence agency with unchecked power to hack at will.

A letter filed in the House of Commons library written by Ben Wallace, security minister, to the head of the intelligence and security committee, Dominic Grieve, states: “Following a review of current operational and technical realities, GCHQ have… determined that it will be necessary to conduct a higher proportion of ongoing overseas focused operational activity using the bulk EI regime than was originally envisaged.

“Since the passage of the Bill, the communications environment has continued to evolve, particularly in terms of the range of hardware devices and software applications which need to be targeted.”

In the letter, Wallace notes that the Investigatory Powers Act theoretically provides a warrant for the use of EI, with the further permission to enact it provided by recent warrant applications. Wallace also states that the Investigatory Powers Commissioner Adrian Fulford has recommended safeguards for the hacks, although all are post-factor, so may have limited effect.

GCHQ Says Targeted Hacks Obsolete

Bulk EI allows intelligence groups to commit widespread hacks, so instead of targeting just one specific individual they would have access to devices, communications networks and vital infrastructure. According to these groups, the increased use of encryption makes targeted hacking largely redundant, therefore, wide hacking offers a more effective solution.

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Charities, organisations and privacy groups have expressed alarm at the use of this method, saying that it is a threat to individuals’ privacy and security. There is a real fear over the GCHQ’s unlimited access to citizens’ data, and also concerns that the agency could be convinced to trade UK citizens’ information in exchange for information on others.

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