back to article Missiles-on-rooftops Brit spy Farr: UK gov can slurp your Facebook, Twitter ... What of it?

A top UK spy reckons British intelligence can legally snoop on Brits' Facebook posts and tweets because they’re classed as “external communications” – though he wouldn't confirm outright that his g-men had done so. Charles Farr, director general of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism, said that the UK government runs …

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  1. Nick Ryan Silver badge

    Re: Where are the Register's servers located?

    Don't worry, you should be safe mentioning "plans for the revolution" as long as there's no related mention of Al-Qaeda, The Terrorists Cookbook or other subversive material such as "The Little Book of Common Sense", 1984, or indeed any mention of Brazil.

  2. Psyx

    Re: Where are the Register's servers located?

    I don't think that looking at anything publicly posted could be considered 'spying' can it?

  3. TheOtherHobbes

    Re: Where are the Register's servers located?

    I wasn't aware everyone's Google search history was considered public.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Where are the Register's servers located?

    Referring to Brazil is ok, but don't refer to Brasil.

  5. Nick Ryan Silver badge

    Re: Where are the Register's servers located?

    I was thinking this Brazil :)

  6. Don Jefe

    Re: Where are the Register's servers located?

    Even if your message never left the UK, all bets are off for the privacy of any Commentards since this comment was made by a foreign national from inside a foreign land. As of now, your records have been updated to reflect your voluntary affiliation with a known destabilizing influence with strong commercial and political ties to the governments of various, friendly, nations.

    The costs of the comprehensive security assessment regime you are presently undergoing will not be debited against your savings should your security assessment result in a threat status rating of Insignificant or Benign. Should you have questions about this process, or wish to appeal your threat status rating, you may request assistance by typing: 'ALLAH HATES CAPITALISM - THE SLAVES OF THE GREAT SATAN WEEP SILENTLY FOR THE ETERNAL PEACE FOUND IN THE EMBRACE OF ALLAH'. That sentence signals the Home Office which will quickly dispatch a personalized support team to assist you in familiarizing yourse

  7. JaitcH Silver badge
    Pint

    Re: Where are the Register's servers located?

    They seem to be all over the place - I see from my screen they are in the UK, USA and even Japan depending on the time of day.

    These various server locations were all serving pages to users in either Kampuchea/Cambodia and VietNam. Kampuchea/Cambodia and Laos take their national InterNet feeds from VietNam.

  8. JimmyPage Silver badge
    Big Brother

    Internet cf. postcards

    Personally, I've always taken the view that any data transmitted through any public network should be viewed in the same light as a postcard, where the transmitted data *and* addressing data are in plain view. Although (ironically) the younger generations are probably unaware of how postcards worked. Like rotary phones ;)

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Internet cf. postcards

    Not seen "spooks" and the use of postcards with a peel back postcard within it?

  10. Nick Ryan Silver badge

    Re: Internet cf. postcards

    I assure you that the encryption involved in some postcards would be enough to baffle most government agencies.

    At least that's the impression I get whenever I get a postcard from my parents. So far I've managed to decrypt 50% of the one I received last week.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Internet cf. postcards

    Quote JP: any data transmitted through any public network should be viewed in the same light as a postcard, where the transmitted data *and* addressing data are in plain view.

    Well, that was fair and reasonable "when the internet routers efficiently & simply delivered packets like a slightly drunk postal worker" {Lessig} but now the internet routers have developed {Moore} to have an overwhelming technical analysis capability - with an hard-wired API forwarding everything - to be analysed & stored forever by agencies. That's applied advanced machine learning on our meta-data, and is a very powerful attack. Society has never seen this amount of power in the hands of secret beaureaucrats before.

    Much as the DVLA/Police have spent the last decade criminalising owners of motor vehicles - motorists persist in driving round in an object of value and have an address where to post the bills {Clarkson} - the future internet police might retrospectively attack us for what we posted last year, in ten years time!?

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Internet cf. postcards

    This is why I have already collected all of my reg posts and sent them off to the Internet police, just to avoid any misunderstandings later

  13. batfastad

    Morally repugnant

    Legal? Sure, just make the laws to fit.

    Morally repugnant? Most definitely!

    I notice the self-appointed guardians of citizens' morality aren't blurting about the morality of this one. It's quite astounding that any politician could ever consider themselves morally superior or even morally equal to a normal human being. Scumbags.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Morally repugnant - sorry, no

    Politicians are no better and no worse than other people morally.

    It's Plato who wanted a superior class of politicians who were philosophers (i.e. like him). But in his Republic most of us who post on El Reg would be metics, not even citizens. Plato's concept of aristocracy has bedevilled civilisation in the West ever since, with those in charge thinking that they were some kind of philosopher king. Don't they, Tony?

    The Athenian idea of selecting politicians at random by lot has something to commend it, in that the first criterion for getting the job is no longer that you think you would be better at it than 99.998% of the population.

  15. wolfetone Silver badge

    My view

    As I'm sure the NSA, GCHQ, et al can read what I'm about to say (and I hope they do), I would like to call Mr.Charles Farr an absolute scum bag full of twattery. There is no need for this snooping, if there was Germany wouldn't be so bloody pissed off at America and the UK for snooping on their Chancellor.

    To quote Mr.Cleese: "I don't want to talk to you no more, you empty-headed animal food trough wiper! I fart in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!"

    Politicians and their home boys make me sick.

  16. malle-herbert Silver badge
    Thumb Down

    Why don't they just...

    Why don't they just classify everything outside of GCHQ headquarters as 'external'

    and be done with it...

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Why don't they just...

    They do :(

  18. RoninRodent
    Big Brother

    > If the intelligence services happened to hoover up some internal communications accidentally, they could just not look at them without a warrant.

    As they have no oversight and nobody would know they looked at it and as they can't be prosecuted it wouldn't matter anyway. With no deterrent the above statement is worthless. He may as well say "we promise not to look, honest!"

    > He also said that even when analysts did happen to violate people’s privacy by accessing their internal communications in error, people shouldn’t worry because they’d probably forget what they saw anyway.

    See.

    I once saw leaked pics of a certain female celeb I wasn't supposed to see. I haven't forgotten and neither would the analysts if they "accidentally" saw something interesting.

    > “British residents are being deprived of the essential safeguards that would otherwise be applied to their communications - simply because they are using services that are based outside the UK,” Privacy International said in a statement.

    Incorrect as shown above. We are being deprived of the essential safeguards that should be applied to our communications because the spooks are above the law, above reproach and not held to any form of oversight or accountability.

  19. Matt Bryant Silver badge
    Facepalm

    Re: MoaninRodent

    "....I once saw leaked pics of a certain female celeb I wasn't supposed to see. I haven't forgotten and neither would the analysts if they "accidentally" saw something interesting....." I can comfortably bet two things - firstly, that you are in no way as memorable as a celeb, either dressed or naked; secondly, the drivel you consider interesting is highly unlikely to be what they consider interesting, either professionally or for kicks. If you wish to claim otherwise, please do provide some details on these super interesting secrets that you regularly send over the Internet. Oh, and BTW, emails to your fellow basement dwellers telling them your Mom is letting you have a friend stay over now you're forty is not a secret nor interesting.

  20. Psyx

    Re: MoaninRodent

    Again with the personal insults, Matt.

    It's kinda pathetic and makes it slightly embarrassing to hold a similar opinion to you on any matter.

  21. Matt Bryant Silver badge
    Happy

    Re: Psyx Re: MoaninRodent

    "Again with the personal insults....." Er, kettle, meet pot? You did post the following deeply eloquent and most adult comment at about the same time - ".....tinfoil hat squad appear to have diddly shit....". Petard moment?

    I would suggest you may have an higher tolerance of mindless stupidity masquerading as intelligent comment than I do, but then I'm old and cranky, and have long-since learned that some people will not change their views regardless of the evidence you pile up in front of them, nor the complete lack of evidence they have to support their views. I do salute your optimism, though.

  22. Psyx

    Re: Psyx MoaninRodent

    "Er, kettle, meet pot? "

    My own comment was clearly intended in humour and not directed personally. People can decide if 'the tinpot brigade' applies to them or not. Telling people 'your fellow basement dwellers' and insulting their mother is highly personal. There is a gulf between the two approaches.

    "I would suggest you may have an higher tolerance of mindless stupidity masquerading as intelligent comment than I do."

    No, I don't. I just have some manners and don't want to devalue my points with name-calling. Discussion is about learning, understanding other opinions, influencing and enlightening. Even if you believe you have nothing to learn, if you want someone to come around to your point of view, telling them their mother made a grave mistake is not a constructive tack. Of course, if people are debating purely in order to give themselves a hard-on and slag people off then personal insults is totally the way to fly.

    Even stopped clocks are right twice a day, and points can often be learned from fallible sources.

    And there's really no point going into a conversation with the preconception that the other person is an idiot and you're there to tell them so, as it really achieves nothing bar bad karma.

  23. Matt Bryant Silver badge
    Angel

    Re: Psyx MoaninRodent

    "....My own comment was clearly intended in humour...." Well, be careful, there are some awful touchie types on here that whine at the first sign of 'humour', and gaz doesn't seem to have been getting any lately either... (gaz, that's humour, BTW, just in case you were confused)

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    external?

    "external comms based on platforms in the US."

    the US is external for bend-over Britain?

    Our Masters will not be pleased to hear...

  25. Grikath Silver badge

    Re: external?

    Well yes, technically it is, since the packets have left British Jurisdiction, and can, in a really narrowminded view, be seen as "foreign communication" , which *is* within the purview of any intelligence agency.

    The fact that there's a sheaf of (inter)national laws and agreements that country of origin of both sender and recipient is, in fact, the determining factor whether or not internet communication is "national" or not, means bugger all to them, of course.

  26. bigtimehustler

    Isn't he flat out technically wrong here? I mean if I send a message from gmail to hotmail there is no guarantee that data is not effective sent from a US server to another US server once it has left my browser. So in his reasoning is also external communication. Plus, most of these services operating data centres all over the world, can he be sure that on facebook or twitter the message ever in fact left the UK data centres when posted? Particularly when it comes to facebook private messages, which could be from one UK person to another. Seems to me he does not fully understand what he is talking about, but he's management so that doesnt really surprise me.

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    > Isn't he flat out technically wrong here?

    Technically, yes, absolutely.

    Legally... there is no such thing as "flat out wrong/right" in law (just how much wrong/right depends on how expensive a lawyer you have). Confusing technical with legal truths can get very hurtful, so be careful out there.

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    And the news here is?

    Remember when, ~18 months ago:

    http://www.businessinsider.com/library-of-congress-is-archiving-all-of-americas-tweets-2013-1

    Don't need a search warrant to search a library....

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    external communications

    brilliant. This makes it 100% of comms, as they are, by default, directed "externally". Arguably, not what I'm thinking now (fucking spooks!), but then, I'm sure that as soon as they invent a machine to be able to, detect, read, record and interpret that electric field associated with a thought process... oh, have they already?! Shit :(((

  30. Blacklight
    WTF?

    Hang on a minute....

    So, I'm in the UK and I place a call (on a landline) to someone in the US (or anywhere outside the UK and it's associated territories).

    That call is routed over UK based equipment. Intercepting it (and "interception" is the word used in the article" requires a warrant. Why is the same not true of anything in transit to an internet site?

    Granted once it's arrived at said destination, if said destination is outside the UK, and/or set to be public, then fine, look at it all you want....but snarfing it "in flight" still counts as interception within the UK.....doesn't it?

  31. dontforgetyourtowel

    Re: Hang on a minute....

    ahhh haa in theory, yes, it requires a warrant, but in practice http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UKUSA_Agreement anything but. So UK intel can't grab the phone call, but the yanks can, and pass on what the contents were. Its been going on since 1954.

  32. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

    M'kaaay...

    So, they're looking for Al Qaeda terrirists on Facebook and Tw@tter... Found many?

    I'd say the real reason they do that is because they can and it's easier to sit in an air conditioned office reading some teenager's personal messages for laughs than to do the actual, old-fashioned, put-on-your-dish-dash-and-go-to-the-desert-and-speak-to-some-arabs kind of actual intelligence...

  33. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: M'kaaay...

    No, it's not because they're looking for an easy life, though they'd love you to think that.

    It's because this was never about terrorists, it's about surveilling the general public, as they're the people who pose the biggest threat to the rich and the powerful who're running things.

    Terrorists don't create FB groups to discuss their plans, but plenty of anti-government political groups, environmentalists, occupy wall street, etc. - they do. That is the target. People who are not breaking the law, and so don't think they have any reason not to post their views and actions on social media.

  34. Psyx

    Re: M'kaaay...

    "So, they're looking for Al Qaeda terrirists on Facebook and Tw@tter... Found many?"

    They've probably nicked a shit-load of people talking trash and inciting violence. Probably not so many actual bomb plotters.

    "I'd say the real reason they do that is because they can and it's easier to sit in an air conditioned office reading some teenager's personal messages for laughs than to do the actual, old-fashioned, put-on-your-dish-dash-and-go-to-the-desert-and-speak-to-some-arabs kind of actual intelligence..."

    Because GCHQ do that, don't they?

    SIGINT is what GCHQ do. MI6 go and talk to other people overseas and MI5 bug people in Bromley. You might as well complain that the NHS isn't re-airing enough episodes of Bottom in the wake of Rik Mayall's death.

    And do you honestly believe that Facebook is analysed by actually reading teenager's posts one at a time?

    And talking to people in deserts is a pretty poor way of getting information in comparison to trawling data. And much more expensive. It still goes on, but it doesn't do much to decrease *domestic* terrorism, does it? Or do you think that some bloke in a village in 'Stan knows more about credible UK bomb threats than the people in the UK potentially organising it?

  35. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

    Re: M'kaaay... @cap'n

    Well, yes, that too.

  36. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

    Re: M'kaaay... @Psyx

    "SIGINT is what GCHQ do."

    Yes, but the overwhelming reliance on SIGINT is there in the first place because it is easy. Here or in the US, doesn't matter. I'm sure, if they hear that there is a awful terrorist cell operating from a building next to theirs they will still be sitting in their office, shuffling their "assets", tapping phone lines, realigning satellites, reading FB and watching YouTube instead of physically going across the street and checking it out.

  37. Matt Bryant Silver badge
    Facepalm

    Re: Vlad Re: M'kaaay... @Psyx

    "....instead of physically going across the street and checking it out." The GCHQ are analysts/techies, not SWAT. If there was a distinct and immediate threat then the Police onsite might go and investigate, otherwise the 'checking it out' would be handed over to the local Special Branch team and/or MI5.

  38. Psyx

    Re: M'kaaay... @Psyx

    "Yes, but the overwhelming reliance on SIGINT is there in the first place because it is easy."

    It's really not. You don't need a degree in computer sciences and a deep understanding of radio propagation to take photos of an ambassador snorting coke of a hermaphrodite hooker's backside.

    "Here or in the US, doesn't matter. I'm sure, if they hear that there is a awful terrorist cell operating from a building next to theirs they will still be sitting in their office, shuffling their "assets", tapping phone lines, realigning satellites, reading FB and watching YouTube instead of physically going across the street and checking it out."

    Err...no. That gets done as well, but *by different people*. Kicking in doors is not NSA remit, in the same way that the DEA don't guard courtrooms. NSA/GCHQ are under the spotlight at present because Snowdon leaked stuff about SIGINT/COMINT and because everyone has data to worry about. There are plenty of people still doing fieldwork. It's just they haven't had anyone showing the world their Powerpoint presentations.

    Citation: How did you nail Osama? Wasn't just the NSA, was it? No over-reliance on snooping technology was responsible.

  39. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    exceptional circumstances

    >“I am not aware of any exceptional circumstances which would justify a departure from the neither >confirm nor deny principle in relation to the alleged Tempora

    What about when foreign companies stop basing themselves in London because of the assumption that all their data will immediately be copied to the USA? What about when Airbus stops allowing Brits anywhere near their designs because GCHQ will copy them to the NSA who will hand them to Boeing?

    I'm not sure that being seen as merely a US eavesdropping operation is exactly in line with Boris and Cameron's new digital tentacles London - or perhaps it is!

  40. ciaran

    Hey, is he putting Ireland into "internal communications" ?

    I'm Irish. I learned in school that "British Isles" is a geographical term that includes the island of Ireland. So he's NOT spying on the Irish? Ridiculous, the nearest source of seasoned ex-terrorists being ignored !

  41. M7S

    Does using HMG online services count?

    Will any of these (other examples may abound) be counted as external communications as they involve (directly or indirectly) sending our data to servers based overseas?

    Paying the congestion charge http://www.theregister.co.uk/2012/03/20/dvla_outsource/

    Completing the UK National Census http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/05/23/lockheed_census_select_committee/

    It's just that a cynic might think this sort of thing gave these services carte blanche to be able to access stuff based on a technicality, rather than the spirit of the law. I couldn't possibly comment.

  42. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Excellent News

    Given that RIPA has so many holes that even your local council can slurp your comms, your data is probably safer by not being subject to RIPA.

    Small consolation, I know. :-(

  43. Robert E A Harvey

    I don't care

    I've never twatted nor facebukked anything that I didn't want people to know.

    And I do support certain political viewpoints on there, and if MI* are collating my remarks about IDS and Blair and Gove and Microband, then there is some chance they may get to hear my views, if only as part of a bell curve. Good. 'cos they ain't listening any other way.

  44. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So, extending this scum's line of reasoning, a hidden microphone recording conversations in a public street would be fine to record indiscriminately as this, again, is externalised communications?

  45. Steve Knox Silver badge
    Facepalm

    No, "internal" and "external" in this context refer to final storage or transmission of the communications either within or without the political boundaries of the UK.

    However, in the US, a hidden microphone recording conversations in a public street is fine for anyone because US law applies the reasonable expectation of privacy standard. In this case, a reasonable person chatting on a public street would expect that their conversation might be overheard (because they're in public.)

    Not sure about UK law, but regardless of whether you're being recorded or not, talking about private matters in public is probably not a good idea.

  46. flangeorificial

    Um....

    So do terrorists actually post public comments or tweets containing their evil plans? That would be a little reckless of them.

  47. Chozo
    Trollface

    Re: Um....

    It's a matter of perspective but yes. Everything from grandmother chaining herself to the of a gates of a puppy farm to the invasion of small countries, activists irrespective of motivation or ideology often publically anounce their intent to cause disruption in advance to raise awareness and sympathy for a cause.

  48. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Um....

    > So do terrorists actually post public comments or tweets containing their evil plans? That would be a little reckless of them

    Well, Hezbollah learned of the Lebanon invasion (the one from 2005-ish) through Facebook, having "befriended" (Facebookically speaking) soldiers in the IDF.

    Also, it appears to be pretty much de rigueur these days to organise protests and demonstrations via Twatter and the like, so if by "terrorists" you mean those inconvenient people that we used to call "citizens", then I guess yes, you're correct.

  49. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Um....

    Anonymous have a fb page to discuss their planned "attack" on gchq Cheltenham over the bank holiday weekend and people are posting on there with one person advocating gbh as an acceptable form of protest....

  50. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    well i hope you choke to death slurping up all those ads. so now we learned that al qaida likes spam meat (counter espionage right there), barclays bank, pictures of cats, and always clicks links that says "...and then you'll never guess what happened next"

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