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Privacy group points finger at telcos over GCHQ spying

Microsoft, Apple, Twitter and Google are among eight cloud firms calling for widespread reforms in US intelligence gathering techniques

Pressure group Privacy International has filed formal complaints against several telcos for helping British spy agency GCHQ in its mass interception of data and voice traffic passing through undersea fibre optic cables.

The group filed the complaints with international economic body the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), based in the UK. The OEDC provides a forum for governments to work together to share experiences and seek solutions to common problems.

Privacy International referenced media reports suggesting that BT, Verizon Enterprise, Vodafone Cable, Viatel, Level 3 and Interoute all granted access to their fibre optic networks for the UK’s GCHQ surveillance program, Tempora.

“As a result, Privacy International believes that there are grounds to investigate whether up to a dozen OECD guidelines, pertaining to companies’ responsibilities to respect human rights, including the right to privacy and freedom of expression, were violated,” the group said in a statement.

The group added that if the allegations are true, the world’s telcos have undermined their customers’ internationally recognised human rights and contributed to adverse human rights impacts.

The organisation wrote to the companies in August 2013, seeking clarification of their role in Tempora, but did not receive answers demonstrating that the operators had taken steps to mitigate or prevent the adverse human rights impacts that have occurred.

“It has been recently reported that some of the companies have gone “well beyond” what was legally required in facilitating GCHQ’s mass surveillance and received payment for their cooperation,” the group added. “By collaborating with GCHQ and providing access to networks, Privacy International argues that these companies have knowingly contributed to the violation of human rights by enabling the mass and indiscriminate collection of data and interception of communications.”

Privacy International is therefore asking operators to explain all the steps they had taken to oppose, resist or challenge requests or directions to facilitate GCHQ’s mass interception programmes, exhaust all legal avenues available to challenge GCHQ’s requests, cease any voluntary compliance with GCHQ and introduce policies to ensure all measures available are taken to resist requests from any government that would result in mass interception.

“With each passing day, the public finds out more and more how private companies are colluding with governments to operate mass surveillance programs that intercept our daily phone calls, text messages, emails, and personal data,” said Eric King, head of research at Privacy International.

“It is unconscionable to think that the companies that carry our most personal information either refuse to stand up for us, or remain silent when our rights are violated. Far from being coerced, it appears some of the companies have gone well beyond their legal responsibility by colluding with GCHQ on its Tempora program.”

He added that Privacy International calls on operators to do the right thing and halt their involvement with mass surveillance, and that it hopes the OECD will investigate what steps, if any, the companies took to defend the human rights of their customers.

In related news, device maker Apple has revealed details of the requests for customer data it has received from governments worldwide. While the US made far more requests than any other government – between 1,000 and 2,000 in the six months to June 30 – the UK was second on the list, having made 127 requests for data during the period. Spain Germany and Australia completed the top five.

Explaining its reasons for publishing the data, Apple said in a statement: “We believe that our customers have a right to understand how their personal information is handled, and we consider it our responsibility to provide them with the best privacy protections available.”

It should be noted that the vast majority of these requests are in relation to robberies or thefts or even missing persons enquiries and not matters of national security.

Apple added that at the time of publishing the report, the US government did not allow Apple to disclose, except in broad ranges, the number of national security orders.

This week, device maker Apple revealed details of the requests for customer data it had received from governments worldwide. While the US made far more requests than any other government – between 1,000 and 2,000 in the six months to June 30 – the UK was second on the list, having made 127 requests for data during the period. Spain Germany and Australia completed the top five.

Explaining its reasons for publishing the data, Apple said in a statement: “We believe that our customers have a right to understand how their personal information is handled, and we consider it our responsibility to provide them with the best privacy protections available.”

“Perhaps most important, our business does not depend on collecting personal data. We have no interest in amassing personal information about our customers. We protect personal conversations by providing end-to-end encryption over iMessage and FaceTime. We do not store location data, Maps searches, or Siri requests in any identifiable form.”

It added that at the time of publishing the report, the US government did not allow Apple to disclose, except in broad ranges, the number of national security orders.


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